San Diego House members travel the world with private money
Congressman Darrell Issa speaks at a committee hearing, Jan. 9, 2014. Courtesy photo.

San Diego House members travel the world with private money

Between the start of the current Congress on Jan. 3, 2015, and the end of June, San Diego County’s five representatives and members of their staffs took 31 trips that were paid for by private entities, mostly charities, think tanks and trade associations.

News in Numbers

The office of Rep. Darrell Issa, a Vista Republican, led the delegation, with 14 such trips. The office of Rep. Duncan Hunter, an Alpine Republican, reported no trips paid for by nongovernment sources.

Privately funded trips taken by House members and staff

Member Office Trips
Darrell Issa (R) 14
Juan Vargas (D) 8
Susan Davis (D) 5
Scott Peters (D) 4

Source: Office of the Clerk of the House

Sponsors of such trips describe them as opportunities to educate members of Congress and their staffs about issues best understood by on-the-ground experiences, but critics say the trips are an opportunity for special interests to gain access to decision makers.

The most frequently visited city, with four trips, was Las Vegas, thanks mostly to three of Darrell Issa’s staffers attending the Consumer Electronics Show in 2015 and 2016 courtesy of the event’s host, the Consumer Technology Association.

(An Issa staffer also attended a Vegas-based National Association of Broadcasters event in April.)

Issa has been something of a darling of the tech industry, frequently commenting on issues relating to technology, privacy and civil liberties. In addition to the CES trips, staffers from Issa’s office have taken industry-paid trips to meet with Pandora executives in New York City and tech executives in Seattle paid for by the Internet Association, a technology industry trade group.

In all, local House members and their staff visited 30 cities over the past 18 months.

Credit: Leo Castaneda | inewsource
Source: Office of the Clerk of the House

Among other popular destinations were a quartet of Israeli cities: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tiberias and Ginosar.

The nonprofit American Israel Education Foundation paid for one staff member from the offices of Issa, Scott Peters and Juan Vargas to visit those cities during weeklong trips last year. Watchdog groups have criticized the trips because the AIEF is the charity wing of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a group that lobbies Congress on legislation and is therefore prohibited from paying for congressional travel.

The AIEF and Consumer Technology Association were among the organizations funding the most trips, at three apiece. In all, 25 private entities funded local Congressional travel.

Organizations sponsoring more than one trip

Sponsor Trips
American Israel Education Foundation 3
Consumer Technology Association (formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Association) 3
Progressive Policy Institute* 3
The Congressional Institute 3
Third Way 3
German Marshall Fund of the United States* 2
Robert Bosch Stiftung* 2
Semiconductor Industry Association 2

* Indicates one or more trips were cofunded with another entity
Source: Office of the Clerk of the House

The local delegation’s disclosure reports show 12 international trips and 19 domestic trips.

And while the local representatives sent mostly staff members on domestic junkets, they occasionally reserved seats on international flights for themselves and sometimes their spouses.

The Turkish Coalition of America spent more than $7,500 to send Congressman Vargas on a weeklong trip last May to four cities in Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

At the same time, Democratic Rep. Susan Davis of San Diego was in Montreal for a weeklong trip courtesy of the Aspen Institute, the Democracy Fund, the Henry Luce Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The organizations paid about $3,700 to send the Armed Services Committee member and her husband to the French-Canadian city for “roundtable discussions regarding Syria, Iraq, Iran and ISIS with experts and diplomatic representatives.”

Those weren’t the only international trips Davis and Vargas participated in last year. The U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress spent about $24,000 for Davis and her husband to visit three Japanese cities in February, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the German charity Robert Bosch Stiftung spent almost $15,000 sending Vargas and his wife to Berlin and Elmau, Germany, that April.

Destinations visited more than once*

Destination Trips
Las Vegas, NV 4
Berlin, Germany 3
Hot Springs, VA 3
Jerusalem, Israel 3
Philadelphia, PA 3
Tel Aviv, Israel 3
Brussels, Belgium 2
Kiev, Ukraine 2
Manassas, VA 2
Middleburg, VA 2
New York, NY 2
Tiberias, Israel 2

* Some destinations were part of the same trip
Source: Office of the Clerk of the House

Such international trips have come under increased scrutiny in the wake of a congressional ethics probe that last year revealed a trip to Azerbaijan ostensibly paid for by a group of Turkish-American nonprofits was instead secretly funded by the Eurasian country’s state oil company. (The group that paid for Vargas’ 2015 trip to Turkey is not connected to any of the groups involved in the investigation.)

Issa took one privately funded trip. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, spent a little more than $700 to send Issa to a two-day policy retreat in Middleburg, Virginia.

San Diego Congressman Peters did not take any trips himself.

To view details of all privately funded congressional travel, including how much the sponsoring organizations paid for the trips, visit the Office of the Clerk of the House’s website.

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About Joe Yerardi:

Joe Yerardi
Joe Yerardi is a freelance data journalist for inewsource, where he worked between 2013 and 2016 as an investigative reporter and data specialist. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email joe.yerardi@gmail.com.