Wednesday, June 18, 2008

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: A TRAVELING CONGRESSMAN

A Washington, D.C.-based institute dedicated to "fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue" by holding seminars and forums for Congress members in various parts of the world has paid more than $100,000 since the turn of the century for travel expenses for U.S. Rep. Tom Udall and his wife.
REP. TOM UDALL
In trips paid for by The Aspen Institute, Udall has gone to conferences on "the global environment" in Lausanne, Switzerland, Barcelona, Spain, and Rome; a confab in Florence, Italy, on "the convergence of U.S. national security and the global environment"; conferences on "political Islam" in Helsinki, Finland, and Istanbul, Turkey; meetings between Chinese and American scholars in various cities in China; an education-reform conference in CanĂșn, Mexico; and two conferences on Latin American policy in the beach resort city of Punta Mita, Mexico.

And don't forget a "congressional planning" meeting in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. — a popular location for congressional retreats — back in 2001.

The total cost of Udall's Aspen trips was $105,066.66.

The Legistorm Web site, which compiles a database of congressional trips, makes a notation — a dollar sign symbol — on the Punta Mita trips to indicate hotel charges were "unusually expensive." The hotel charges for Udall and his wife, Jill Cooper, were $3,175 for the January 2006 trip and $2,950 in January 2005. But that's probably just a case of Punta Mita being a pricey little town. Nearly all of the Aspen Institute's 61 trips for senators and representatives to Punta Mita listed at Legistorm have the "unusually expensive" icon.

Udall's trip to China last year, which cost more than $29,000, was the fourth most expensive trip a member of Congress has reported since 2000, according to Legistorm. The most expensive one was a $31,000 trip to London in 2000 by Rep. Thomas Billey, R-Va., and his wife, which was paid for by the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co.

In response to questions Wednesday about Udall's Aspen trips, spokeswoman Marissa Padilla said in a written statement: "The world is a dangerous place and there are complex global issues facing New Mexico and the nation today. Tom Udall has proven he'll do what's right for New Mexico and the nation by constantly working to expand his knowledge and maintain a strong grasp of the serious issues impacting us today. ... These high level policy conferences give Congressman Udall the opportunity to focus on the key issues affecting New Mexico and the nation. The Aspen educational programs have never cost the taxpayers a dime, and the Congressman has never missed a vote by attending them. ... Every week Congress is in session, the Aspen Institute also holds policy briefings and sessions with distinguished scholars and international experts that the Congressman attends."

What is the Aspen Institute? According to Aspen's Web site, the institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization created in Aspen, Colo., by Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke. Now headquartered in Washington, D.C., the institute has campuses in Aspen, Colo., and near the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

The institute's board of trustees includes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former Disney chief executive officer Michael Eisner; David Gergen, who has been an aide to several U.S. presidents, most recently Bill Clinton; and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell.

Former Secretary of State (and Bill Richardson employer) Henry Kissinger; former Defense Secretary and World Bank President Robert McNamara; and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker are listed as "lifetime trustees."

According to a written statement by former U.S. Sen. Dick Clark, D-Iowa, director of Aspen's Congressional Program, in 2006, funding for the program was provided solely by Carnegie Corp. of New York, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, The Packard Foundation, the Charles S. Mott Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Asia Foundation.

Though corporate contributions aren't accepted for the congressional program, Aspen's most recent annual report lists dozens of corporate sponsors — assumedly for other institute activities. According to the most recent tax form available, Aspen took in nearly $55 million in contributions in 2005.

According to Legistorm, which has compiled congressional trips going back to 2000, Aspen has spent more money on congressional travel than any other group — more than $4.9 million on 894 trips.

Its closest competitor is the American Israeli Education Foundation, which has spent $2.5 million on trips since 2000.

According to Legistorm's breakdown, Aspen has spent more than $3.4 million on travel for Democratic members of Congress, compared with $1.5 for Republicans.

Other Aspen Institute trips: Udall isn't the only member of the New Mexico delegation to travel on Aspen's dime. Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman and his wife traveled to London in August 2002 for a conference on U.S.-Russia relations; to Helsinki alone in 2003 for the same conference on political Islam that Udall attended; and alone to Moscow in 2003 for another conference on U.S.-Russia relations.

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., along with her husband and two children, went to the same conference in White Sulphur Springs that Udall went to, courtesy of the Aspen Institute in 2001.

Grubesic won't leave early. When state Sen. John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe, defeated incumbent Roman Maes in the 2004 Democratic primary, Maes, a senator since 1985, resigned to give Grubesic a little head start and a little extra seniority.

But Grubesic, who didn't seek re-election this year, said this week he won't do the same for state Rep. Peter Wirth, who won the Democratic primary unopposed and faces no general election opposition.

"I was elected to a four-year term and I intend to serve it," Grubesic said. Another factor in keeping his seat, he said, is the prospect of the long-threatened special session — currently rumored to be in the works for August or September, though anyone who really knows anything about it is keeping mum.

Wirth said this week that he doesn't mind waiting until January to take the District 25 Senate seat. In fact, he said, if there is a special session, he'd probably be more comfortable in his current House seat than as a newcomer to the Senate.

He said he's met with Grubesic recently, "just to talk about what I've gotten myself into."

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