Ethics probe: Congressman’s Taiwan trip likely broke the law

Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., appears to have accepted gifts from the Taiwanese government

Topics: ProPublica, Taiwain, Jack Abramoff, Bill Owens, New York, ,

Ethics probe: Congressman's Taiwan trip likely broke the lawRep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., left, surrounded by his family members. (Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
This originally appeared on ProPublica.

ProPublica A congressional ethics investigation into a Democratic representative’s trip to Taiwan found “substantial reason to believe” the trip violated federal law because it was paid for by the Taiwanese government.

The investigation was launched following a ProPublica story on the 2011 trip by Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., and his wife. The probe was conducted by the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body made up of former members of Congress and other citizens that can make recommendations to the official House ethics committee.

Along with releasing the independent report, the official committee said Wednesday it is still reviewing the matter to determine whether to launch its own full-blown investigation. The committee could ultimately recommend penalties to the full House.

At the heart of the Owens case is the question of who paid for and organized the trip to Taiwan. Members of Congress are barred from accepting most gifts, including travel expenses, from foreign governments. (That rule goes back to a constitutional ban on such gifts.) Lobbyists also may not organize most congressional trips, a reform instituted after the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Owens’ office originally said the trip — which included stays at luxury hotels, visits to tourist attractions, and meetings with Taiwanese officials — was paid for by a school called the Chinese Culture University. But ethics investigators found “substantial reason to believe” that the trip was in fact paid for by the Taiwanese government, “resulting in an impermissible gift, in violation of federal law and House rules.” Investigators also found substantial reason to believe that the Owens trip was organized by Taiwan’s lobbyists.



response from the Washington law firm retained by Owens, Perkins Coie, disputed the report’s findings. Owens announced after ProPublica’s story came out last year that, “in an abundance of caution,” he was reimbursing the university for the $22,000 cost of the trip.

Disclosure forms show 15 congressional staffers and representatives taking similar trips to Taiwan and also with the Chinese Culture University listed as the sponsor. The trips go back to 2006 and total roughly $125,000 in expenses.

Taiwan has many interests before the U.S. government, for example its perennial goal to acquire more advanced weaponry as part of the billions of dollars in annual American arms sales to the country. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou raised the issue of acquiring new F-16 jets in his meeting with Owens.

Taiwan is behind only Israel on the list of popular foreign destinations for congressional trips, according to LegiStorm, which tracks travel data. Another school there, Fu Jen Catholic University, has reported paying more than $500,000 for dozens of trips since 2005.

Neither Taiwan nor the Chinese Culture University cooperated with investigators from the Office of Congressional Ethics. Taiwanese officials did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

According to the ethics report, Owens had limited contact — primarily a dinner — with officials from the purported sponsor, the Chinese Culture University. In contrast, Taiwanese government officials were involved throughout: they organized the trip; met Owens and his wife at the airport; accompanied the congressman for the entire trip; and paid bills for hotels and airfare.

The report quotes an unnamed witness with knowledge of Owens’ travel arrangements alleging that Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs purchased the Owens’ plane tickets.

It quotes an employee of the Regent Taipei Hotel saying that the foreign ministry settled the Owens’ bill. That employee later sent an unprompted follow-up to the ethics investigators saying that she believed the university may have later reimbursed the ministry for the cost. When asked by investigators how she knew this, the employeerecommended investigators contact the ministry. Investigators could not determine whether the ministry was ever reimbursed.

The report also cites an email trail, first reported by ProPublica, showing Taiwanese officials and the country’s American lobbyists ironing out details with Owens’ staff in the weeks leading up to the trip.

An itinerary given to Owens includes both a Taiwanese government contact and a note to “keep your boarding passes for all domestic and international flights and return them to TECRO. We need to have those passes for accounting purpose [sic].” TECRO, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, is Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the U.S.

At one dinner during the trip, a Taiwanese government official even “prompted [Owens] to thank the Chinese Culture University,” according to the congressman’s testimony to ethics investigators.

The Office of Congressional Ethics recommended that the House ethics committee issue subpoenas to three of Taiwan’s lobbyists in the U.S. because of their refusal to cooperate. The trio are employees of Park Strategies and include the founder of the firm, former Sen. Al D’Amato, who helped organize the Owens trip.

In the wake of the ethics probe, Taiwan terminated its $20,000-per-month contract with Park.

Update Feb. 7, 9:30 p.m. A spokesman for TECRO told ProPublica that all of the trips to Taiwan, including the Owens trip, “conformed with U.S. laws and regulations.” In the Owens case, “the government paid for some of the trip — and then the university reimbursed the government,” the spokesman said, declining to comment further.

The ethics investigators could not confirm whether any reimbursement was actually made and noted that “Even if the Chinese Culture University made such a reimbursement, it is not clear whether Representative Owens could have accepted a gift of travel that was initially paid for by an impermissible source.”

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>