By Steve Henn
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Tax law prohibits members of Congress from taking international trips paid for by private foundations. But reporter Steve Henn and Bob Williams from the Center for Public Integrity have learned California Republican Richard Pombo may have done just that.
The group that paid for Congressman Pombo's questionable trips is called the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources, or the I.F.C.N.R. The nonprofit's website says its mission is to "communicate, educate, and advocate for the environmentally sound, ethical, socially just, and sustainable use of nature's resources."
But despite its green veneer, Michael Markarian at the Humane Society of the United States says the I.F.C.N.R. has alienated mainstream environmental groups. "This is an organization that has made a cottage industry out of opposing any animal welfare reform," says Markarian.
The I.F.C.N.R.'s tax documents show its financial backers include the Japan Whaling Association, the International Fur Traders Association and a company that was shut down after its president was convicted of smuggling and of violating endangered species protections. The chemical company Monsanto is another major I.F.C.N.R. funder.
Congressman Pombo is chairman one of the most important environmental committees in the House of Representatives. He, his wife and a staffer have accepted $23,000 in international travel from the I.F.C.N.R. in the last five years.
Although trade associations and public charities are allowed to pay for international congressional travel, private foundations are not, and several tax attorneys, who specialize in nonprofit tax law, say these trips clearly violated IRS rules.
"It is actually in the tax law; the tax law and the regulations forbid such payments" says Victoria Bjorklund, a nonprofit tax expert and a partner at the law firm of Simpson and Thatcher. Bjorkland says Pombo is required by law to reimburse the I.F.C.N.R. for the trips, or he and the foundation's managers could face steep fines.
I asked Stephen Boynton, I.F.C.N.R.’s founder if he consulted a tax attorney about this.
"I talked to the House Committee on Ethics,” says Boynton, “and they told me at the time, and so did Congressman Pombo, that that was not a problem and I acted on that advice."
Pombo declined to speak on tape, but told the Center for Public Integrity, "I never heard about them being a private foundation. Obviously I will have my accountant check into this."
Pombo's affiliation with the Boynton and his nonprofit I.F.C.N.R. runs deep. He chaired one of the groups most important programs, an initiative to help its corporate members network with legislators and push for changes in trade rules that affect endangered species. Boynton says, "It seemed logical that Congressman Pombo might be the perfect chairman. So I brought the idea to him. He considered it and agreed to do so."
Pombo served for years and recently resigned. He is now chairman of the House Resources Committee. This year he pushed significant changes in environmental law through the House.
Aaron Colangelo, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, says, "The Pombo bill that passed the house recently would essentially gut the endangered species act including important protections to safeguard wildlife from the impacts of pesticides"
Lawyers like Colangelo use these provisions to sue federal regulators and force them to take a closer look at how at pesticides and herbicides might be harming endangered species. By far, the most widely used herbicide in the world is made by Monsanto.
Monsanto's products, including their biggest product: Roundup, have been implicated in some of these recent lawsuits.
Since 2001, Monsanto has given $115,000 to Stephen Boynton's I.F.C.N.R., according to the groups tax returns. Laurie Fisher, a Monsanto spokesperson, initially described the company's financial support as, "Very modest, about $5000 a year." When confronted with the tax returns, she said the company contributed, "More in the early days."
Fisher referred any questions about the Endangered Species Act to CropLife America, a trade association for chemical manufacturers. That group has lobbied aggressively and openly to amend the Endangered Species Act so the act’s rules don't apply to agricultural chemicals.
For more information on congressional travel, visit Power Trips.