It can be one of the perks of elected office: free trips to foreign lands. Recently, several Washington state lawmakers were invited on a 10-day tour of Turkey and Azerbaijan. This particular overseas excursion has raised questions in the Capitol about when a foreign trip is legitimate legislative business and when it’s a junket.
“We were going to be tourists”
The invitations were hand delivered to legislative offices earlier this spring. The cover letter began: “We want to invite you to Turkey and the US-Azerbaijan Convention.”
“We were going to be tourists,” says Senator Maralyn Chase, a Democrat who initially signed up for all-expenses-paid trip in May. It included a visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and a boat tour on the Caspian Sea – along with meetings and briefings.
“We were going to see the things that they wanted us to see and we would have gone to Azerbaijan and we would have done wonderful things,” says Chase. “We would have built memories and good relationships that make for closer ties between our countries.”
In the end, Chase didn’t get to go on the trip because the legislature went into an overtime session. She says several other lawmakers also had to cancel. But here’s the question: should Chase have accepted the invitation in the first place?
A risky choice
Consider this. A lawyer for Washington Senate Democrats had looked at the itinerary and drafted a memo. It warned “acceptance of the trip … would be risky, due to the lack of connection with legislative activities.”
“Well, you know, we disagree,” says Chase.
She argues world travel is vital to her job as the ranking Democrat on the Trade and Economic Development committee. “I think it’s a matter of cultural competency.” And, she says, understanding trade issues.
But Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board applies a different standard. Back in 2002, the Board developed a three-pronged test to determine if a trip is legitimate legislative business or a junket. This followed a scandal involving lawmakers going to the Rose Bowl.
Here are the questions the Board asks: First, is the legislative purpose of the trip substantial? Second, if the sponsor wasn’t paying would it be legitimate to use taxpayer dollars to fund the travel? And finally, did the legislature evaluate the trip in advance?
Republican Senator Jim Honeyford – a member of the Legislative Ethics Board – calls that last one the “check before you go” rule. “Because,” he says, “you can’t undo it afterwards.”
Junket or justified?
These days much of the foreign travel that state lawmakers do is related to trade missions. These are specifically allowed in Washington’s legislative ethics guidelines. For instance, last year nearly a dozen legislators participated in a trip to Taiwan valued at nearly $7,000 per person. The all-expenses trip was sponsored by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. The itinerary included tourist stops, but mostly meetings and briefings with government officials and trade representatives.
Democratic Senator Karen Fraser says it wasn’t a junket. “It was very targeted on trade,” she says.
By contrast, this year’s invitation to Turkey and Azerbaijan was not billed as a trade mission and it wasn’t sponsored by a government entity. In fact, the Honorary Consul General of Turkey here in Washington had previously flagged the sponsors of the trip as having possible ties to radical Islamist policies.
In the end, one Washington State senator did still make the trip. Republican Pam Roach who says she did not pre-screen the trip with legislative lawyers. “I was able to participate and very glad that I did.”
Roach says she was one of about 300 legislators and others from around the country to go on the trip. She says travel like this is about spreading democracy and there was no attempt to influence her political views.
“What is the potential problem? Legislators go different places around the world often,” says Roach.
Ultimately it’s up to the individual lawmaker to decide whether to accept an all-expenses-paid trip. But there’s always the risk someone will file an ethics complaint after the fact.