North country Congressman Bill Owens "knew or should have known" that the government of Taiwan was behind a trip he took to that country in December of 2011, according to a just released report from a government watchdog group.
The report - from the Office of Congressional Ethics - was done last summer, but was only released Wednesday when the House ethics committee announced it is continuing its investigation into the trip.
The report concluded "there is substantial reason" to believe Owens accepted payment for the trip from an "impermissible source," in violation of both federal law and House rules.
In response to Wednesday's developments, Owens said he expects the ethics committee to clear him.
“This is the next step in the process and I expect that ultimately it will result in an affirmation of my position that the trip was undertaken in the quest for jobs for my constituents and was done with every intention to comply with all applicable rules,” Owens said.
“I hold myself and my office to the highest of ethical standards. Which is why, in abundance of caution, I have already personally reimbursed the sponsor of the trip for the cost,” he said.
Owens has said the purpose of his trip was to meet with a high tech company that was considering opening a plant in upstate New York, and more generally to encourage investment in the north country.
The ethics committee investigation is said to still be 'preliminary.' "The Hill" newspaper notes that the ethics committee stopped short of setting up a formal subcommittee to investigate Owens.
Owens reimbursed the Taiwan university that supposedly sponsored his trip $22,000, and Owens has contended he moved quickly, once he became aware of the ethics issues, to deal with them.
Yet the record laid out by the Office of Congressional Ethics is far murkier.
Under U.S. law and the rules of Congress, congressmen and senators can't accept gifts - like overseas trips - from foreign countries. However, there are a few exceptions, including something called the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act.
From the start in the summer of 2011, Owens knew the invitation to travel to Taiwan was coming from the Taiwan government - Owens acknowledged that to investigators.
Between July and November, Owens' staff worked with the Taiwan government's lobbying firm, headed by former U.S. senator from New York Alfonse D'Amato, in setting up the trip.
The trip was originally going to be covered under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, but at some point - it's not clear when - Owens' wife Jane became part of the trip.
And that changed everything: federal law and Congressional rules are clear - foreign governments can't pay the expenses of spouses.
At that point, Owens staff members and the lobbying firm started trying to find a private sponsor to take over from the Taiwan government.
Eventually, The 'Chinese Culture University' agreed to 'sponsor' the trip, though the report says Owens' staff continued to deal with the government before the trip, that the Taiwan government continued to plan the itinerary, and that during the trip Owens and his wife were accompanied by a Taiwan government official.
On top of that, the Office of Congressional Ethics says the Taiwanese government actually paid Owens' and his wife's air fare and hotel bill, at least to start.
From the report:
"Information obtained by the OCE during the course of its review indicates that the government of Taiwan, in addition to organizing and conducting Representative Owens' trip, initially paid Representative Owens' travel expenses.
(1) According to a witness with knowledge of Representative Owens' flight arrangements, the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid China Airlines for the airfare for Representative Owens and his wife.
(2) According to a representative of the Regent Taipei Hotel, Representative Owens' room payment was settled by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs."
Owens told investigators he only learned that the government had paid his expenses - and was reimbursed by the Chinese Culture University - after the first press questions about the trip surfaced in May 2012.
Yet the Office of Congressional Ethics report notes that Owens and staff had "several indications" the Taiwanese government was paying for the trip in the weeks before he left for Taiwan.
The Chinese Culture University, the lobbying firm and the government of Taiwan's unofficial embassy all refused to cooperate with investigators, according to the report, which meant "The (Office of Congressional Ethics) was therefore unable to confirm whether the Chinese Culture University did, in fact, pay for Representative Owens' and his wife's travel expenses, or when such
payment was made."
Not surprisingly, Owens' lawyers disagreed vehemently with the investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
In a letter to the House ethics committee, Owens' lawyers argued the rules are "vague and inconsistently interpreted" and "Representative Owens and his staff clearly acted in good faith with respect to these issues."
The lawyers argue that there was, in fact, evidence that the Chinese Culture University was the true sponsor of the trip.
In its statement Wednesday, the House ethics committee said it was extending its investigation "in order to gather additional information necessary to complete its review."
The release of the report comes after Owens won re-election last November against a well-funded, aggressive Republican opponent who attempted to use the Taiwan trip against Owens. Although the initial questions about the trip were raised as far back as last May in a ground-breaking investigation by the website ProPublica, (read ProPublica's original report here) and then amplified during the political campaign, Owens was able to successfully argue he had addressed the ethical questions by paying back $22,000. It is, of course, impossible to guage what effect the contents of the report would have had on the race.
The reaction from the National Republican Congressional Committee Wednesday night was swift:
"Instead of focusing on representing his constituents back home, Bill Owens took a $22,000 trip to Taiwan and stayed in a $500 per night hotel - all on the dime of Taiwan and its lobbyists," said Ian Prior, an NRCC spokesman.
"Not only was this behavior hopelessly out-of-touch, but it may have also been against the law. This is certainly not the kind of behavior that the people of the 21st District of New York are looking for in their Congressman, " Prior said in a statement.
The complete Office of Congressional Ethics Report
Statement of the House ethics committee Wednesday
Report in 'The Hill' newspaper on Wednesday's developments
Response of Owens' lawyers to Office of Congressional Ethics report