Colorado congressmen rack up frequent flier miles on other people’s dimes

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Colorado’s congressmen have collectively accepted nearly a $250,000 worth of privately funded travel perks during their time in office, with Democrats at both the top and the bottom of the spending scale, according to a report by Denver’s 9News.

Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette — the longest-serving Colorado House member — tops the list of money spent on often-luxurious travel. She accepted some $81,700 worth of privately paid junkets while in office.

Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, on the other hand, has no record of traveling on private entities’ dimes.

DeGettte’s travel has included visits to 12 foreign cities, including Paris and Tokyo, and lodging in five-star hotels like the Ritz in Madrid. The station reports that DeGette’s daughter and husband accompanied her on some trips.

The station based its reporting on documents from the Office of Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.

None of the junkets reported by the station were funded with tax dollars — instead, they were funded by nonprofits and other private entities.

Craig Holman, a spokesman from the watchdog group Public Citizen, told 9News said groups like the Aspen Institute — which funded much of DeGette’s travels, including a five-day $7,000 jaunt to Spain to attend a forum on U.S.-Russia relations — can have undue influence on legislators.

“It becomes part of the influence-peddling game,” Holman said. “We have now seen the number of travel junkets creep right back up to the pre-2007 levels. We’ve got a problem on our hands.”

Congress tightened restrictions on congressmen accepting travel perks in 2007 after it was discovered that former lobbyist Jack Abramoff bankrolled lavish trips for lawmakers.

DeGette told the TV station that travel arrangements — including hotel selection — are made by the sponsoring organization. She said the trips helped her become a better legislator.

“Some of the information that I have learned in these trips, and some of the contacts I’ve made, have been really helpful, like when we wrote the Affordable Care Act and when I do work on diabetes issues,” she told the 9News.

She said they also help foster collegiality between members of different parties who are traveling together.

Republican Doug Lamborn is the second-most-traveled congressman, in terms of dollars spent. Private entities paid $50,741 for trips that included Israel, Argentina and Hungary, with his wife accompanying him on some excursions.

Other than Polis, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner traveled the least on trips funded by private interests, accompanying other delegation members on a 2011 trip to Israel paid for by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

It was expensive, with AIPAC spending more than $13,000 on Gardner alone for the weeklong trip. The congressmen stayed at the five-star David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. While the itinerary included a full slate of speakers and meetings, it also included tours and museum visits.

The purpose of the trip was to “better understand the United States’ relationship to Israel,” according to the paperwork Gardner’s office filled out for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Ethics.

Colorado’s 9News reported that all of the delegation members on the trip voted for aid to Israel.

“One really has to wonder, is it really educational or is it just a travel junket?” Holman asked.

In a statement to the station, Gardner’s representative defended the trip.

“Congressman Gardner promised the people of his district that he would be a strong supporter of Israel, and he traveled there in 2011 to gain a better understanding of the political and economic ties between the United States and Israel,” the representative said. “As the only Democracy in the Middle East, Congressman Gardner believes we must do everything we can to strengthen those ties.”

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Greg Campbell