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The Big Fish


Lawmakers and Waterfall

A series of media investigations in the early 1990s focused public attention on charity fundraisers where members of Congress skied, fished and golfed with corporate lobbyists. Politicians attended these events for free in the name of raising money for a good cause. Critics saw these events differently, arguing that they allowed for unseemly influence peddling by special interests.

In 1996 both the House and Senate passed new ethics restrictions banning their members from accepting free trips to recreational charity fundraisers. But at least one of these events continued with business as usual: the Waterfall Fishing Tournament. In 2003 the House, but not the Senate, lifted this restriction to facilitate a charity golf tournament organized by former House Majority Leader Tom Delay.

Marketplace identified 10 current and former members of Congress who have taken part in Waterfall charity over the last decade. These lawmakers are allowed to attend as long as the charity does not pay for travel or lodging associated with the event. Some lawmakers used Political Action Committee or campaign funds to pay for at least part of their trips — others simply ignored the rules — still others did not disclose the trips either on campaign reports or in Congressional travel disclosures. Only one, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has said he paid for the trip personally.

  1. Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Il., appears in photos at the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 1999 and 2000. Hastert's office did not answer repeated questions about who paid for those trips, which were not disclosed in congressional travel reports. Marketplace was unable to find any payments from Speaker Hastert's campaign fund or his leadership PAC, which covered the costs of these trips. Waterfall staff say Hastert has returned to the resort every year, but recently he has come with smaller groups. In 2005 Hastert's Leadership PAC spent almost $25,000 at Waterfall Resort.
  2. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., appears in photos at the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 2000. Lott's office did not respond to repeated questions about who paid for this trip, which was not disclosed in congressional travel reports. Marketplace was unable to find any payments from Senator Lott's campaign fund or his leadership PAC, which covered the costs of the trip.
  3. Former Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and his wife were instrumental in creating the Waterfall Fishing Tournament. Frank Murkowski declined to comment for this story. Nancy Murkowski now serves on the charity's board of directors. Former Sen. Murkowski used his leadership PAC to pay for travel expenses for several members of Congress to travel to Alaska for the event. Marketplace could not find any record that Murkowski's PAC or his campaign paid for lodging at the Resort. The charity spends about $200,000 a year on its fishing tournament, according to the group's tax returns. An official from the charity told Marketplace it pays the entire cost for renting Waterfall Resort. Mrs. Murkowski told Marketplace most lawmakers who attend reimbursed the charity for lodging. She and other board members declined to provide any details about who paid these expenses.
  4. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., has attended the fishing tournament at least five times in the last eight years. Bond appears in photos at the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 1998, 1999 and 2000. These trips were not previously disclosed in congressional travel reports. Bond reported accepting travel expenses for fishing tournaments in 2004 and 2005 on his annual personal financial disclosure statements. After questions from Marketplace, Bond amended his disclosures for 2004 and 2005, saying he also accepted food, local transportation and activities associated with the charity fishing tournament worth more than $4,000. Bond's office said the Senator would reimburse the charity for travel and lodging expenses that he accepted in error.
  5. Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wy., attended the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 2004. He filed a congressional travel disclosure form saying the charity paid for his travel to the event. On that form, Enzi stated the purpose of the trip was to deliver a speech. After questions from Marketplace, Enzi's office acknowledged he appears to have accepted travel and lodging expenses in violation of Senate rules. The Senator has sought guidance from the Senate ethics committee and says he may reimburse the Waterfall Committee for travel and lodging.
  6. Former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, appears in photos at the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 2000. Gramm filed a congressional travel disclosures stating "Waterfall 2000" paid $4,000 in lodging, food and related expenses for himself and his son. Gramm, who left the Senate in 2002, did not return calls asking for comment.
  7. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., appears in photos at the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 1999. That October, Sen. Murkowski's leadership PAC, Americans for Sound Energy Policy, paid Sen. Cochran more than $2,000. According to FEC documents, Cochran's staff told Marketplace a PAC controlled by Sen. Murkowski paid Cochran's expenses to attend the event.
  8. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, appears in photos at the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 1999. When Marketplace contacted Craig's office, his staff said the charity, the Waterfall Committee, paid the entire cost of the trip. Later, after conferring with board members at the Waterfall Committee, Craig's office told Marketplace the charity told them Craig personally paid for lodging to attend the event, but they could only locate a $227 payment from the senator to cover his expenses there.
  9. Former Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., appears in photos at the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 1999. Sen. Murkowski's leadership PAC, Americans for Sound Energy Policy, paid Nickles' PAC, The Republican Majority Fund, more than $1,000 for travel expenses in August of that year. Nickles, who left the Senate in 2004, did not return calls asking for comment.
  10. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, attended the Waterfall Fishing Tournament in 1996, according to Sam Kito, a board member of the charity. Akaka's office confirmed he attended that year. Akaka's staff says the senator paid his expenses personally — the only one who paid for the entire costs associated with the trip, including travel to Alaska.


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