Posted by Medea -
Tue, Sep 27, 2011
Two members of CODEPINK, Tighe Barry and myself, along with Grant Smith from IRmep had a meeting with three lawyers from the Office Of Congressional Ethics (including the OCE’s director) about the complaint we submitted regarding AIEF/AIPAC trips to Israel. We walked them through our complaint, including the growing body of evidence that AIEF functions more as a lobbying slush fund than a legitimate charitable nonprofit.
OCE explained the rules from their more narrow perspective. They said that while AIPAC might be taking advantage of every loophole, the trips may not be illegal. OCE explained that without documentable “factual evidence” of wrongdoing, they won’t initiate an investigation— and that it is up to us to provide that evidence.
Such evidence could include proof of AIPAC lobbyists contacting members to arrange the trips, AIPAC lobbyists traveling with members on the same jet liner, or AIEF “retaining or employing a lobbyist.” The OCE’s definition of a lobbyist is extremely narrow—and AIPAC claims to employ only nine such individuals on its domestic disclosures.
While OCE agreed that AIPAC may quite likely have had a hand in these trips, and may even be overstepping the lines of legality, we simply need more proof to trigger OCE action.
When we revealed the fact that AIEF has no employees, that 66% of its board are also AIPAC directors, and that the trips were organized by AIPAC staff, OCE claimed that was not illegal. Employees, if they are not registered lobbyists but simply “work for” a lobbyist group, are allowed to “volunteer their time” to work for AIEF. We were told that it is also legal for the executive director of AIEF to have his salary paid by AIPAC (which is the case now), because he is not a registered lobbyist. If any of the AIPAC lobbyists were involved in any aspect of the trip, that would be illegal, but this would also be pretty much impossible for us to prove. (And OCE clarified that if any proof were obtained illegally/or involved attorney/client privileged information, they would not be allowed to accept it as evidence.)
According to OCE, employees working or volunteering for AIEF can use their AIPAC offices, phones, everything, as long as AIPAC “reimburses” AIEF for such overhead. What they can’t do is call Congressional offices, engage in outreach or logistics for the trips, say they are calling on behalf of AIPAC, or send information about the trip on AIPAC letterhead. A possible piece of evidence then would be a congressperson publicly saying that he/she had been contacted by AIPAC about the trip, or disclosing that they had actually traveled with an AIPAC-sponsored delegation.
We underscored that AIPAC people had been with the delegation in Israel. Wasn’t that illegal? OCE countered that while the rules say that lobbyists can’t travel with the delegations, they can—technically—be at the meetings on the ground (i.e. in Israel) as long as they didn’t go on the same transportation (plane, taxi, etc) with the delegates. This is likely another way AIPAC narrowly skirts the rules, by having their staff simply meet the delegation on the ground. But we don’t know for sure.
What is clear—thanks to you—is that the OCE office has been flooded with calls and letters expressing public outrage about the AIPAC junket. The Director told us that he was impressed by our ability to mobilize so many calls and emails. This is probably why they agreed to meet with us and take so much time to answer our questions.
But unlike what might happen with other government regulators, public outcry and even letters to the editors across the country will not spur independent OCE action. Most discouraging is that even if an OCE investigation was initiated, and the trips were found to be violating the rules—nothing much would happen. The Office would issue a report. There would be no reprimand and no public censure—just a report. And since OCE lacks subpoena power, any cooperation with their investigation would rely on the good graces of airlines turning over passenger manifests, or banks giving out financial information.
Needless to say, it was a highly frustrating meeting. The lawyers were courteous, and stressed they are open to public meetings, as well as any “new evidence” we might present or other concerned citizens who might want to brief them. But they did not give a strong sense that this was a way to stop these trips. Rather, it seems that bad publicity for those who go on these trips is a better bet in terms of discouraging others from taking future AIPAC trips.
OCE acknowledged that given the curious funding flows, lack of staff and infrastructure and activities of the AIEF, it might be better to push the IRS to investigate. This is something that Grant Smith’s group IRmep is doing. For more information on how to support Grant’s IRS complaint and push the IRS to investigate, contact Grant Smith at email@example.com.
Our final ray of hope for OCE action is that Public Citizen’s lawyer Craig Holman, an architect of the Congressional ethics rules, is submitting a report to OCE on how the rules are being misinterpreted and how AIPAC/AIEF really are breaking the rules. His report will be done next week, and we will get it out to you.
Thank you for your efforts to stop our representatives from cavorting around the Middle East with AIPAC lobbyists.
Medea Benjamin, CODEPINK and Global Exchange
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