US Representative Bill Owens said on Friday that he would pay back the cost of a four-day luxury trip he and his wife, Jane, made to Taiwan in December last year.
While Owens denies any impropriety, he made the decision following a growing political scandal in which he is being accused of breaking the US House of Representatives’ ethics rules. The trip, which cost an amazing US$22,132, was organized by the New York company Park Strategies, registered foreign agents for the government of Taiwan. Members of Congress are strictly forbidden under the ethics rules to take any trips or junkets in any way planned, requested or arranged by lobbyists.
In this case, the trip was paid for by its sponsors, the Chinese Culture University, but documents filed by Park Strategies with the US Justice Department shows that the lobbying firm was deeply involved. Park Strategies filed the documents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires disclosure of all contact by lobbyists with members of Congress. Owens cleared the trip with the House Ethics Committee before leaving — two days after Christmas — but failed to mention that Park Strategies was involved.
Details of the trip were first disclosed by two US watchdog journalistic organizations, ProPublica and POLITOCO.
In a prepared statement on Friday, Owens said: “In an abundance of caution, and to avoid any question about the purpose of the travel, which was to bring jobs to New York, or about whether it was appropriate for the sponsor to pay for its costs, I am reimbursing the sponsor personally for the full value of the trip.”
He said that he had not broken any of the House ethics rules.
“We closely followed the Ethics Committee’s process to seek advance approval for the trip,” he said.
Owens said that the Chinese Culture University did not employ lobbyists and that no lobbyist traveled with him.
“We did not understand that our contacts with an agent for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office could affect the trip’s permissibility,” he said.
Owens is in a tight race for re-election this year and his opponent, Republican Matt Doheny, released a statement on Friday night condemning the Taiwan trip and calling it “emblematic of everything that’s wrong in Washington.”
Doheny said: “We ask our members of Congress to represent our interests. Bill Owens would rather take a US$22,000 trip to a foreign country with his wife than find ways to fix this ailing economy and get constituents back to work.”
The Upstate New York Tea Party issued a statement on Friday calling on Owens to resign. According to the documents released by Park Strategies, Owens and his wife flew first-class to Taipei and back at a total cost for the couple of US$19,000. Chinese Culture University then spent US$360 a day for meals for the two of them and an average of US$520 per night at the Grand Formosa Regent Taipei and the Ambassador Hotel Kaohsiung.
The grand total for the four days was US$22,132. Reports and e-mails filed with the US Justice Department indicate that the trip was organized and arranged by Park Strategies and that Chinese Culture University was brought in to pay the bill.
The university officially invited the congressman and his wife “to promote international cultural exchange.”
While in Taiwan, Owens met with executives from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) — the world’s largest contract chipmaker — to discuss the possibility of TSMC opening a factory in New York.