WASHINGTON - January 23 - A group of Washington lobbyists led by Richard Kessler under the umbrella of the Ripon Educational Fund and the Ripon Society has spent millions of dollars taking lawmakers to European capitals and U.S. resorts, thereby skirting congressional ethics rules that forbid registered lobbyists from paying for congressional travel, a Public Citizen investigation reveals.
Kessler, head of Kessler Business Services, has kept a lower profile than many better-known Washington lobbyists, such as admitted felon Jack Abramoff. Few have questioned the more than $1 million in free travel that lawmakers have reported receiving from groups and companies Kessler appears to control or influence. All told, Kessler-influenced groups and companies are responsible for providing 6 percent of the $17.6 million lawmakers have reported receiving in free travel from private companies and organizations from 2000 to mid-2005, Public Citizen estimates.
By funneling travel money through the Ripon Educational Fund and the Ripon Society, his parent company, Century Business Services, and his lobbying clients, Kessler has apparently made it possible for lawmakers to accept free trips to European capitals and U.S. resorts without violating ethics rules. It is legal for lawmakers to take trips paid for by private companies and organizations.
"Kessler's apparent use of non-profits and corporate clients to get around the ban on lobbyists paying for lawmakers travel is outrageous," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Such lavish travel gives lobbyists an inside track with lawmakers, at a minimum, and could even be interpreted as building the groundwork for legislative favors."
"This travel charade needs to come to an end," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division. "The only sure way to do that is for Congress to completely ban privately paid travel."
The report, Richard Kessler and the Ripon Groups: How Lobbyists Give Lawmakers Free Trips Despite the Ban on Lobbyist-Funded Travel, is available at http://www.citizen.org/. Major findings include:
* Free Travel: Members of Congress have reported receiving $742,000 in free trips for lawmakers from 2000 to mid-2005 from two
non-profits that appear to be controlled by Kessler, the Ripon Educational Fund and the Ripon Society. Lawmakers also reported taking $273,000 in free travel from 11 of Kessler's clients, and Kessler's parent company paid $36,000 to take five lawmakers to Scotland in 2003.
* Leading lawmakers have taken Ripon's luxury trips: Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is seeking to be the next House Majority
Leader, took two trips costing a total of at least $13,920; Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), Republican Conference Chairwoman, took one trip costing $9,050; Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who has temporarily stepped down as chairman of the House Administration Committee, took one trip costing $5,400; Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, took five trips costing a total of $51,629; and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, took two trips costing a total of $24,519.
* The Ripon Educational Fund: Founded by Kessler in the early 1980s, the fund takes lawmakers to European capitals purportedly
to discuss policy with their foreign counterparts. However, 10 of the 12 members of the board in 2003 and 2004 were lobbyists, and lobbyists outnumbered lawmakers five-to-one on at least one of the fund's trips. While lawmakers reported receiving almost $700,000 in free trips from the fund between 2000 and mid-2005, the Ripon Fund's actual costs were much higher. It spent at least $4.6 million taking members of Congress and lobbyists on lavish trips.
* The Ripon Society: Kessler is president of the Ripon Society, which claims to be a moderate Republican think tank, but at
least two of the associations that belong to the group say their motivation for joining is to gain access to lawmakers. All seven of its 2004 board members were lobbyists. Nine lawmakers reported receiving $32,000 in free travel in January 2005 from the group to attend a Florida conference that the society claimed to be a forum for policy discussions, but its executive director later bragged that it produced "enthralling" interactions between its lobbyist members and its lawmaker guests.
* Lobbyist-Dominated Boards: Of the 19 board members who guided the two Ripon groups in 2003 and 2004, 17 were lobbyists. At
least 10 of the board members lobby for major Kessler clients, such as the Altria Group Inc., Amgen Inc., the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Pfizer Inc.
* Profitable Relationships: Kessler has profited handsomely from his relationships with the Ripon groups' board members. The
companies Kessler has lobbied for paid him at least $3.3 million for lobbying services between 1998 and 2004.
* Client-Paid Travel: Lawmakers have reported receiving 96 free trips valued at more than $273,000 from 2000 to mid-2005 from
11 of Kessler's lobbying clients. For instance, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. has given lawmakers nearly $63,000 in free travel from 2000 to mid-2005 and has paid Kessler nearly $1.2 million for lobbying services from 1998 to 2004. Baxter Healthcare, which has paid Kessler $310,000 to represent it from 1998 to 2004, paid $3,000 to fly Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and his family to Chicago in August 2004.
* Campaign Contributions: The 41 lawmakers who have attended the Ripon groups' trips have also benefited from the generosity
of the groups' board members and the companies for which they lobby. The 19 board members have contributed at least $236,000 to the Ripon travelers' political campaigns and political action committees PACs from 1997 to mid-2005. Eleven corporate PACs controlled by the board members' employers have contributed more than $2 million to the 41 lawmakers during the same period.