Companies lobbying government, colleges seeking star speakers and groups eager for information or face time paid for $2.3 million in trips over six years for White House officials, a watchdog organization reported Wednesday.
Powerful presidential confidants, like President Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, and President Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, shared in this bounty.
More than 620 White House aides took free trips between late 1998 and late 2004 to speak to conferences in Paris, Rome and other foreign capitals, Hawaii and Florida, ski resorts in Colorado and Switzerland. Of course, less exotic locales, like Detroit, Cleveland and Oklahoma City, also were among more than 350 destinations.
The Center for Public Integrity, a private ethics watchdog, studied two years of the Clinton administration and four years of the current Bush administration. Data came from public disclosure forms required of each federal office and of outfits that lobby government.
Other high-profile free travelers included Clinton's chief of staff, John Podesta, and from Bush's first term national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, homeland security adviser Tom Ridge and legal counsel Alberto Gonzales.
"These trips are often indirect conduits to influence policy," Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, another private watchdog group, told the center.
White House deputy press secretary Erin Healy said that Bush administration officials "abide by the rules and regulations that have guided staff travel for many years."
Regulations forbid private trip payments if the circumstances "would cause a reasonable person with knowledge of all the facts ... to question the integrity of agency programs or operations."
The center found:
A third of the trips were paid for by entities registered to lobby the federal government. In all, White House officials accepted free travel from 216 companies and organizations that reported spending more than $1.1 billion lobbying between 1998 and 2004.
Taken together, AFL-CIO labor unions were the top sponsor. They spent $200,000 to fly White House staffers to speak to conventions around the world. During the same period, they spent $26 million lobbying.
Drug maker Eli Lilly and Co. spent more than $20,000 on trips while spending more than $36 million lobbying federal officials. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce paid for $16,000 worth of trips while expending more than $200 million lobbying.
Harvard University spent the second largest amount on trips, $85,137, while spending $3.5 million lobbying. Harvard reached the top of the list by inviting Vice President Al Gore to give speeches and had to pay the high cost of bringing several aides with him on a government jet. That produced identical bills of several thousand dollars for each aide.
Of the 51 White House officials who had more than $10,000 in sponsored trips, 29 were in Gore's office, because of such travel. The reports only cover staff, not the president or vice president.
The center could not compare spending under Clinton and Bush because Vice President Dick Cheney's office has not filed any accounting of staff travel. Cheney counsel David Addington wrote government ethics officials that no one in the office accepted travel payments between April 1, 2001, and March 31, 2004.
Cheney's office appears "to have labeled all trips `official trips' and used untold millions in taxpayer money to cover costs rather than accepting trip sponsors' funds that the rules would require to be disclosed," the center said.
Berger, the Clinton aide, traveled to speak at Stanford, Cornell and Dartmouth.
In September 2002, Rove, Bush's top political adviser, accepted $2,300 to go to Aspen, Colo., for a conference sponsored by the venture capital firm Forstmann Little & Co. Fifteen months later, Bush signed a Medicare prescription benefit law, which "sent millions in additional revenues each year to a select group of hospital chains," the center said. "At the time, Rove's trip sponsor owned almost half the stock of one" such chain.
Among his seven other trips, Rove spoke at Harvard, the University of Utah, and an economic consulting firm in Palm Beach, Fla.
© 2005 Associated Press