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Ethics group wants investigators to probe lobbyist involve in Owens trip

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CANTON - A public ethics watchdog wants federal ethics investigators to probe a lobbying firm that arranged Rep. William L. Owens’ trip to Taiwan.

In a letter sent Wednesdasy to the Office of Congressional Ethics, officials from Public Citizen — including one that helped write the law to help prevent corruption via fancy junkets — request that Park Strategies be investigated.

Founded by former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, Park Strategies arranged Mr. Owens’ trip to Taiwan in late 2011, according to a story in ProPublica. That’s an apparent violation of House ethics rules instituted after the lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to prison in 2007 for arranging expensive trips.

Notably, Public Citizen does not call for an investigation into Mr. Owens himself.

“Obviously, we believed that we were trying to comply with the rules,” said Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.“It seems that (Public Citizen) has reached the same conclusion.”

Mr. Owens claims that no House ethics rules were broken, but said that he would pay back the $22,132 that the trip cost. The check to the Chinese Culture University, which paid for the trip, went out on Tuesday, Mr. Owens said, along with a letter that explained the situation and expressed the hope that the hosts wouldn’t take it as an affront to their hospitality.

“Much to the credit of Rep. Owens, immediately after ProPublica broke the story that the trip may have been illegally arranged by lobbyists, Owens agreed to pay the entire cost of the trip out of his own pocket,” the letternotes. “However, no investigation or action has yet been taken against Park Strategies LLC and the lobbyists who were at the heart of the alleged infraction.”

The letter was signed by Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, and Lisa Gilbert, a deputy director.

A spokesperson for Park Strategies declined to make Mr. D’Amato or other members of the staff available for comment.

Mr. D’Amato called Mr. Owens after Park Strategies’ involvement in the trip became clear, Mr. Owens said.

Mr. D’Amato apologized, Mr. Owens said.

“I think it was more, “I’m sorry that this happened,’” Mr. Owens said.

Mr. Owens told Mr. D’Amato that the two should not discuss the matter, “because any time the company is subject to a potential investigation, you wouldn’t want to engage in any substantive discussion about the issue.”

In a statement to ProPublica, which broke the news about the most recent development, a spokeswoman said that the trip broke no House ethics rules and that “If the Office of Congressional Ethics elects to pursue an investigation, we will cooperate fully.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body, can investigate members of the House or lobbyists and forward those complaints on to the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of members of the House.

Per law, the OCE can’t confirm whether it’s investigating a lobbying firm of a member of Congress.

Mr. Owens made the trip to Taiwan to discuss defense matters and the possibility of locating a semiconductor plant in Central New York, he said. The trip was paid and sponsored for by the Chinese Culture University. Park Strategies lobbyists who work for the Taiwan government helped organize the trip, including picking a date and sending an itinerary.

Mr. Owens said his staff has become more conscious of the law surrounding trips. On Wednesday, he was in Montreal to discuss economic development, a trip that he paid for out of his own pocket.

“Clearly, we’ll look more carefully at those,” Mr. Owens said.“There’s no doubt about it.”

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