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Power Trips, Part 2: Who’s paying

Steve Henn Jun 5, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: More than a year ago we aired a special report. Power Trips. An investigation into the outsize influence that free travel for lawmakers has on the political process.

Today, the sequel. Power Trips: Congressional Staffers.

Marketplace, with a team from the Center for Public Integrity and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, has sifted through 25,000 disclosure reports filed by legislators and their staffs. Those documents show that between 2000 and the middle of last year people who work on Capitol Hill took more than 23,000 trips . . . all expenses paid. Total cost: Almost $49 million.

These trips gave the companies footing the bills access to powerful members of Congress. And often their key staff. Marketplace’s Steve Henn begins our report in San Diego. It’s the home of the biggest sponsor of congressional staff travel. A defense contractor you might never have heard of.

STEVE HENN: General Atomics makes the Predator — a satellite-controlled airplane that looks like an upside-down flying spoon. It’s 25-foot wings are so light you could lift them with one hand. But this delicate craft is lethal.

The plane became famous after the CIA used it to assassinate terrorism suspects in Afghanistan and Yemen. President Bush wants to use it to track illegal aliens as they cross the US border from Mexico. Congress says the Predator is an indispensable tool in the war on terror. But when it was first built the Pentagon wasn’t interested in it. Neal Blue, General Atomics chairman and part-owner, says GA took a big risk developing the plane.

NEAL BLUE: The Predator B, as well as the C which has some stealth characteristics, have been developed totally on GA’s nickel — not as a result of government funded contracts.

And these planes aren’t cheap. A stripped-down version of the Predator will set the taxpayers back more than $2.5 million. Once it’s tricked out with high-tech imaging systems and weaponry the price tag can triple.

Though there is a need for these planes, they have a spotty performance history. In 2001, Pentagon inspectors found the plane couldn’t reliably identify targets. Pilots say it is hard to fly and easy to crash. Nevertheless, the Air Force announced in March 2005 that it wanted to spend $5.6 billion on Predators. So, just how did General Atomics land these deals?

General Atomics executives say they make a good plane and they are working to make it better. They also work very hard to sell it. General Atomics is by far the largest corporate sponsor of free congressional trips. It has spent more than $660,000 to send members of Congress and their staff on 86 trips all over the world. The vast majority of these trips went to congressional staffers. By contrast, its rivals Boeing and Northrop Grumman — which are about 30 times larger — spent less than $60,000 combined.

Under House and Senate ethics rules, congressional staffers can accept these trips as long as the member of Congress they work for approve them, and the travel is related to the staffer’s official duties. Marketplace found that all of the trips paid for by General Atomics were legal and followed congressional ethics rules. For the company, these all-expense-paid trips have become a key part of the way it does business, both abroad and with the US government.

LINDEN BLUE: I would rather have them buy predators without having to talk to so many people and be so convincing, but that is just not the real world.

Linden Blue, is General Atomics’ vice-chairman and part-owner.

BLUE: If you have something you have to sell it.

And that’s why in March of 2005 General Atomics flew eight high-ranking congressional staffers to the Melbourne Airshow. The Australian Air Force was prepared to spend $1 billion to buy unmanned planes.

Susan Magill, who was then chief of staff for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, went along. Magill, who declined to speak on tape, told Marketplace the group met with the head of the Australian Air Force but, “We did not push the Predator.”

When Marketplace asked Tom Cassidy, the CEO of General Atomics, what this trip was about, he didn’t mince words.

TOM CASSIDY: Trying to sell Predator B’s to Australia.

Susan Magill’s week-long trip to Australia with her husband cost General Atomics more than $26,000. Cassidy said the company used congressional staffers as a complement to its international sales force.

CASSIDY: They are useful and very helpful, in fact, when you go down and talk to the government officials to have congressional people go along and discuss the capabilities of Predator B with them.

Supporters of the practice say it helps American firms compete with foreign companies. But the Predator’s only serious competitor for the $1 billion Australian deal was another US company — Northrop Grumman. Northrop was at the Melbourne airshow but didn’t bring along any congressional staff.Dennis Thompson, a professor of government ethics at Harvard, says these trips raise a red flag.

DENNIS THOMPSON: General Atomics clearly wants to send the message that if you buy, the US government will be pleased. The message that it also sends, I’m afraid, is that the way we do business in this country is through cronyism.

But sponsors of these trips value staffers equally for the influence they have at home.

BILL WHITEHURST: Staff can be extraordinarily effective in persuading you how to vote.

Former Republican Congressman Bill Whitehurst served on both the House Armed Services Committee and the House Ethics Committee.

WHITEHURST:I recall when I first went onto the Armed Services Committee and there was a staffer. And this man was so knowledgeable about defense research projects that the first year I was on the committee I just found myself being led by him.

During just two weeks in March of 2005 high-ranking congressional staff accepted more than a quarter of a million dollars in free trips to Italy and Australia from General Atomics. Two months later the House quadrupled the Air Force’s purchase of the Predator B at a cost of more than $210 million.

Beth Daley is the Director of Investigations at the Project on Government oversight — an independent Pentagon budget watchdog.

BETH DALEY: Why do big, fancy trips seem to be driving the decisions about Pentagon spending rather than what the military really needs?

Daley worries that the government is buying Predators before all the bugs have been worked out. Yet, year after year Congress orders up more of these planes than the Pentagon has asked for.

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

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