King of Travel

If you are in the business of influencing public policy, picking up the tab for a congressional trip can be a valuable tool.

"Access is key to any lobbyist," says Jim Albertine, past president of the American League of Lobbyists. According to Albertine, lobbying is the art of persuasion, not influence peddling, and the best way to make your case with a member of congress is to have the kind of time only a trip can provide.

"You know you are not working all the time," continues Albertine. "That is extremely important because they open up to you. They seem to be a lot more inclined to listen to what you say."

House and Senate rules ban registered lobbyists from paying for Congressional travel, but lobbyists like Albertine are allowed to set up the trips for their clients and often tag along. His all-time favorite involved a boat trip from Charleston, South Carolina to the resort island Hilton Head.

"We were out on the water, the weather was nice," remembers Albertine. "And also we had a very captive audience. You pin somebody up against the railing - they are not going to jump overboard."

Getting members to come isn't always easy. They are busy people. Plus, House and Senate rules require that the trips be related to some kind of official business, a meeting, a conference, or a fact-finding mission.

Albertine says there has to be a hook. "If you take someone to Cleveland, it is one thing. You take them to Boca Raton, it's another."

Little wonder the most popular destination is Florida, especially in the winter and spring. In the past four-and-a-half years, Senators and Representatives accepted more than 560 all expense paid trips worth more than $1.3 million to the sunshine state.

"Let's be honest," says Albertine. "The nicer the setting, the more relaxed they are. Of course you have to look at their interests. Some members like to play golf, some like to fish, some members like to hunt. Everybody has different tastes. So you have to identify what those interests are and what those tastes are and coordinate a trip that might be more acceptable, or something they might like."

A list of the most popular congressional destinations in Florida reads like a guide to top-tier golf resorts and spas.

The Breakers in Palm Beach, The PGA National Resort and Spa, and the Boca in Boca Raton.

Since 2000, legislators have also visited Turnberry Isle's Resort and Spa nearly 70 times.

Set on 300 meticulously landscaped acres, Turnberry markets itself as a gated, tropical paradise.

"No detail has been overlooked," says a promotional video, "from the oversized marble baths with whirlpools and televisions to the private balconies."

Here pampering is a high art. The spa offers 60 different treatments.

"We wouldn't dream of making you choose just one."

The clientele is posh. Elton John, Elizabeth Taylor, and former President Bill Clinton have all been guests.

So has Louisiana Democrat John Breaux. The Senator has taken 28 trips to Florida since 2000, four to Turnberry Isle Resort.

"He is a powerful congressman and special interests are clamoring to get his attention," says Charles Teifer, the former general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives and congressional ethics expert. "Apparently they are willing to use their checkbook as well as their ideas."

"As what's being provided gets more and more lavish, it looks more an more like a method of compensation that gets around the fact that cash can't be given."

Breaux is the king of congressional travel. He's taken more free trips than any elected official on Capitol Hill. All told, Breaux has taken 56 free trips in four-and-a-half years, which cost industry, universities, and other intersts more than $158,000.

On average, he accepted a more $35,000 in free travel each year from groups. That's more than the median household income in his home state of Louisiana.

Breaux declined to be interviewed on tape but issued a statement saying, "These conferences play an important role in interacting with groups affected by the workings of Congress." He added, "These trips are approved by the Senate ethics committee as appropriate and proper, and at no cost to the American taxpayers."

"It is the seal of approval from a meaningless organization," says Larry Nobel, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a government watchdog. Nobel says the Senate ethics committee has been shirking it's responsibilities for years.

Committee staffers are supposed to review every travel disclosure and help the Senate ethics committee enforce its travel rules. Yet during our investigation, we found dozens of rule violations, and no public record that any action had been taken.

The chairman of the Senate ethics committee declined to speak with us, or comment, despite repeated invitations.

Marketplace asked Breaux if he would tell us what he gained from these trips. He was sent detailed list of questions, but the Senator declined to further comment.

Senator Breaux's most frequent travel underwriter is the drug industry. Drug companies and representatives flew Breaux to Florida resorts eight times. Pfizer flew him to New York four times.

"They want to make sure that when they are negotiating things on the hill that they can get to him," says Nobel. "That their lobbyists can get to him and that when he is in there he is thinking kind thoughts about the pharmaceutical industry."

He was one of only two Democrats allowed into the Republican-controlled committee that wrote last year's $534 billion Medicare prescription drug bill.

Just days before the committee sat down to work, Pfizer flew Breaux to New York for a one-day meeting.

"Breaux was not only very important at the end of the game because he provided the key margin, but also at the beginning," says John Rother, policy director at AARP.

His group's support of the Medicare deal was controversial and he admits the drug industry got virtually everything it wanted. It beat back efforts to use Medicare to hold down drug prices, and fought off a bid to allow drug imports from Canada. The investment-banking firm Goldman Sachs estimated the bill would boost industry revenue by $13 billion a year.

Last November 25, the bill passed the Senate by one vote.

The very next week, Breaux was flown to Palm Beach, Florida. He spent 3 days at the PGA National Resort and Spa. According to Breaux's travel disclosures, Campbell Crane and Associates, a lobbying firm with drug industry clients, picked up the tab.

"It's a boondoggle," says Ron Polluck, executive director of Families USA, an advocacy group that lobbies for affordable health care. "It may not violate a law. It may not violate certain ethics codes, but it has a horrible appearance."

Four months after the Medicare bill was signed into law, PhRMA, the drug industry's trade group in Washington, flew Senator Breaux to Palm Beach Florida to meet with its board of directors.

It's been widely speculated that Breaux, who is retiring this year, is a leading candidate to replace PhRMA's president. PhRMA declined to comment for this story.

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