The Big Fish
Every August, some of the most powerful members of Congress pack their gear to go fishing at an exclusive resort in the Alaskan bush.
"Speaker Hastert is a great fisherman; loves fishing," says Red Cavaney, who is not in Congress, but is a regular on the trips. Senator Kit Bond, R-Mo., is a regular, too. "He enjoys sitting out there, pole in hand, cigar in mouth and having the time of his life."
Cavaney says Trent Lott, the senator from Mississippi and former Republican majority leader, also wet a line in the Alaska waters. "In the after-fishing hours, he's a delightful person to be with," says Cavaney.
The annual fishing event has been going on for more than a decade. The lodge where the trip takes place costs almost $1,000 a night. "It's a five star resort," says Wayne Leong who was a fishing guide there for 17 years. "The guest will have Dungeness crab, oysters, white spotted shrimp, prime rib, rack of lamb, that kind of stuff."
At least nine senators have attended at various times in the past decade. So has Speaker Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois. Who else is on the guest list? High-ranking executives from British Petroleum, Amoco, Marathon Oil and dozens of other firms.
And Red Cavaney. He is the President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's lobbying group in Washington.
The trip is an opportunity for the energy industry's top brass to mingle with an assortment of America's most powerful public servants at one of America's most select fishing resorts: Waterfall.
As its promotional video explains, this is the kind of place with fruit baskets in the room and a special staff to cut, wrap and freeze your daily catch.
The fishing ranks among the best in the world. But for many lobbyists and industry execs, a big part of the catch is face time with members of Congress.
"Our top people go," says Cavaney. "We do not send people who can't make decisions, can't speak for the organization. ... So it's really the people who can sit down and understand, talk about an issue, and if they want to give some advice, you know it is the right advice from that organization."
The yearly event is organized to benefit a charity supported by Alaska's Republican governor and former U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski and his wife Nancy. The charity, called the Waterfall Committee, raises money for breast cancer prevention and treatment programs.
Cavaney was an early supporter. "Its focus is to travel to the rural parts of Alaska, which mostly are not accessible by road, and to deliver inspections and care to residents in those kind of areas."
The charity has given about $1.5 million from 2000 to 2004, according to the group's tax returns. Most of that money has helped pay for mammograms and breast cancer detection equipment for rural Alaskan women.
During the same period, the charity has spent more than $1.7 million on fundraising and other events mostly its annual fishing trip.
"The proceeds go to this very worthy cause, so it's a win-win," says Cavaney.
Many of the charity's supporters include energy industry executives and lobbyists who contribute thousands of dollars to attend the fishing trip with lawmakers. The charity does benefit, but critics say the money is given with other priorities in mind. It allows special interests to lavish free vacations on influential members of Congress.
"Providing money to breast cancer or any other worthy cause is, of course, laudable," says Francis Hill, a non-profit tax expert at the Washington watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. "But the fact that the organization does one thing that is laudable does not excuse the marketplace in private access that is being created in this kind of event."
To avoid "a marketplace in private access," both the House and Senate banned lawmakers from accepting free trips to recreational charity events like this one back in 1996.
A letter from the Senate Ethics Committee to Senator Murkowski expressly forbid senators from accepting free travel or lodging to attend this event.
Yet at least three senators did. Former Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, for example, reported that the charity spent thousands putting him up. Senator Bond and Senator Michael Enzi, R-Wy., originally filed incomplete disclosure statements. As a result of this investigation, both acknowledged they had accepted prohibited travel and lodging and said they would reimburse the charity.
"There is nothing wrong with the energy industry," says Hill. "They should be allowed to lobby. But they should not be able to use a charity to have this kind of high-quality, multi-day, prolonged access to members of Congress while they are providing a vacation that members of Congress could not be able to afford on their own."
Murkowski's wife Nancy, a board member of the Waterfall Committee, said most public officials who attend the event pay their own way. But she did not respond to questions about exactly who paid their own expenses or how much.
Senators Bond, Enzi and Gramm are not the only lawmakers who may have run afoul of congressional ethics rules. After a search of congressional and campaign records, Marketplace could find no disclosures revealing who paid the travel and lodging expenses for two of the most powerful political men in Washington: House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Senate Majority leader Trent Lott.
Hundreds of photos show lawmakers mixing with energy lobbyists and executives at the event.
"Not every failure to file or misfiling is a crime," says Stanley Brand, a criminal defense attorney in Washington who specializes in government ethics. Still, Brand says filing omissions can be serious. "What is a crime is an intentional failure to file when the purpose for that is to conceal some relationship or quid pro quo related to an official action."
No one has suggested an explicit quid pro quo here, but the lobbyists and executives who attend this event have an array of issues before Congress every year. In 2000, when an electric deregulation bill was moving through the House and Senate, several lawmakers who were headed to Alaska for the annual charity fishing tournament hitched a ride on private corporate jets. Their hosts for the flight were top executives from two major electric companies, both with significant interest in the pending deregulation bill.
It's possible that Speaker Hastert and Senator Lott financed these trips themselves. But neither Hastert, Lott, nor their staffs answered any requests for clarification. And even if the lawmakers paid their own way, most congressional watchdogs consider these trips unseemly, at best.
"This has nothing to do with charitable exempt purposes and has everything to do with private vacations for members of Congress and private access for lobbyists and special interests," says Hill.
The annual fishing trip is so deeply intertwined with Frank Murkowski's political fundraising committees that it is difficult, even for the Federal Elections Commission, to figure out where the charity stops and the political fundraising starts.
The charity and Murkowski's now defunct political action committee were at one time run by the same trusted aide, Gregg Renkes. The charity and Murkowski's former leadership PAC sent out invitation letters to the same Waterfall participants. Back in 1999 when Murkowski was chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, his PAC buttonholed 74 lobbyists and executives for a political fundraiser before the 4-day fishing trip. They yachted through the fjords and snow-capped mountains of Glacier Bay, Alaska.
Together with a half-dozen influential senators and the Speaker of the House, they brunched on fresh Alaskan shrimp and crab. In this and other fundraising events organized around the charity fishing trip, Murkowski's PAC pocketed thousands of dollars in corporate contributions, which the Federal Election Commission would later say "appeared to be illegal."
After the cruise, the party of politicians and executives boarded float planes and took off for the annual fishing trip together.