Power Trips, Part 3: The Big Fish

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) with his catch at the Waterfall Resort in Alaska.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Powerful Go Fishin'




TESS VIGELAND: Today we bring you another in our series of investigative reports called "Power Trips." Marketplace and American Radio Works have spent the last year looking into tens of thousands of free trips handed out to lawmakers and their staffs. Trips paid for by special interests. Today we go beyond the public records to the fishing pond. Each summer top lawmakers head to one of the nation's most exclusive and expensive fishing resorts. Casting their lines alongside the politicians: a select group of energy executives. Today a look at who's paying for these trips and the access they provide. And whether lawmakers are properly reporting the private funding they accept to attend the event. From Washington, Steve Henn reports.


STEVE HENN: Every August, some of the most powerful members of Congress pack their gear to go fishing at an exclusive resort nestled on an island deep in the Alaskan bush.
RED CAVANEY: Speaker Hastert is a great fisherman. Loves fishing.

Red Cavaney is not in Congress but he's a regular on the trips. So is Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican.

CAVANEY: He enjoys sitting out there, pole in hand, cigar in mouth and having the time of his life and he does more than his fair share of catch out there.

It's an experience most people could never afford. The lodge where the trip takes place is called Waterfall and it costs almost $1,000 a night. The annual fishing event has been going on for more than a decade. Wayne Leong was a fishing guide at Waterfall for 17 years.

WAYNE LEONG: It's a five-star resort. The guests they'll have like Dungeness crab, oysters, white spotted shrimp, prime rib, rack of lamb, that kind of stuff.

Marketplace has identified at least 10 prominent members of Congress who have attended at various times in the past decade. The trip's an opportunity for the energy industry's top brass to mingle with an assortment of America's most powerful public servants.

So who else joins the party? High-ranking executives from British Petroleum, Amoco, Marathon Oil and dozens of other firms. Oh, and Red Cavaney, who you met a minute ago. Cavaney's the President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's top lobbying group in Washington. Cavaney says no energy industry second stringers get onto the island.

CAVANEY: Our top people go. We do not send somebody who can't make decisions, somebody who can't speak for the organization. So it's really the people who can sit down and understand talk about an issue. And if they want to give some advice, you know it's the right advice from that organization.

The yearly event is organized to benefit a charity supported by Alaska's Republican governor and former US Senator, Frank Murkowski, and his wife. The charity, called the Waterfall Committee, raises money for breast cancer prevention and treatment programs.

Cavaney, was an early supporter.

CAVANEY: Its focus is to travel to the rural parts of Alaska, which mostly are not accessible by road, and to deliver inspections and care to the residents in those kinds of areas.

The oil-men and others executives contribute thousands of dollars to attend the fishing trip with lawmakers.

CAVANEY: All the proceeds end up going to this very worthy cause, so it's a win-win.

The charity does benefit. But critics say those who give the money have other priorities in mind. They say this event allows special interests to lavish free vacations on influential members of Congress.

FRANCIS HILL: Providing money to breast cancer or any other worthy cause is, of course, laudable.

Francis Hill is a non-profit tax expert at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington watchdog group.

HILL: But the fact that an organization does one thing that is laudable does not excuse the marketplace in private access that is being created at this kind of an event.

To avoid that trade in private access, both the House and Senate banned lawmakers from accepting free trips to recreational charity events like this one back in 1996.

Marketplace has obtained a letter from the Senate Ethics committee to then Sen. Murkowski forbidding senators from accepting free travel or lodging to attend this fishing tournament.

Mr. Murkowski declined to comment. His wife, Nancy, sits on the Waterfall Committee's board. She told Marketplace that most public officials who attend the event pay their own way. But when asked who paid, Mrs. Murkowski did not respond.

And Marketplace has found that at least three lawmakers accepted free trips in violation of congressional rules. Former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, for example, reported that the charity spent thousands putting him up. And after questions from Marketplace, Senators Kit Bond and Michael Enzi acknowledged they had accepted prohibited travel and lodging and said they would likely reimburse the charity.Francis Hill:

HILL: There's nothing wrong with the energy industry. They are free to lobby. But they should not be able to use a charity to have this kind of high-quality, multiday prolonged access to members of Congress, to whom they are providing a kind of vacation that perhaps many members could not afford on their own.

Senators Bond, Enzi and Gramm are not the only lawmakers who may have run afoul of congressional ethics rules. After an exhaustive search of congressional and campaign records, Marketplace could find no disclosures revealing who paid for the travel and lodging expenses for two of the most powerful men in Washington: Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Majority Leader Trent Lott.

STANLEY BRAND: Not every failure to file or misfiling is a crime.

Stanley Brand is a criminal defense attorney in Washington who specializes in government ethics. Brand says filing omissions can be serious.

BRAND: What is a crime is an intentional failure to file when the purpose for that is to conceal some relationship or quid pro quo.

No one has suggested an explicit quid pro quo here. But the lobbyists and executives who attend this event every year have an array of issues on Capitol Hill.

For example, in 2000 a bill to deregulate the electric industry was moving through Congress. That summer, executives from two electric companies flew several lawmakers to Murkowski's annual charity fishing tournament on their private, corporate jets.

HILL: This has nothing to do with charitable exempt purposes and everything to do with private vacations for members of Congress and private access for lobbyists representing special interests.

Since 1999 Speaker Dennis Hastert has returned to Waterfall Resort almost every year, according to the resort's staff. Last year he used almost $25,000 from his political action committee to pay for the trip. How he paid during the other years is unclear.

It's possible that Speaker Hastert and Senator Lott financed their trips themselves. Marketplace asked the lawmakers repeatedly through e-mails, phone calls, and hand-delivered letters. But neither Hastert, Lott, nor their staffs answered our questions.

In Washington I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace and American Radio Works.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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