Questions raised over Nancy Johnson trip to Ecuador
Washington watchdogs are questioning why The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization which receives federal funding, paid for Rep. Nancy Johnson, her husband, and three other house members' observation trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
From the Hartford Courant
The nonprofit group spent $4,400 on lodging, $1,200 for meals and $12,300 in transportation expenses for the couple's trip, which began May 28 and ended June 5.
Johnson said the excursion was highly productive and typical of others she has taken throughout her 22-year House career. "I pick knowledge-based trips. I ask myself whether this is a subject I need to know about," she said, "and whether I'll be a better congressman if I know more."
She said this visit was "the first I've ever had the chance to go on that involved gaining a better understanding of international environmental issues and how they impact America."
Johnson also discussed immigration issues with an Ecuadorian foreign affairs ministry official. Danbury, which is in her district, has been rocked with controversy recently over influxes of people from Latin America.
But immigrant leaders in Danbury were surprised when they learned Johnson had gone to Ecuador because she had never accepted their offer to meet with them back home.
"If Mrs. Johnson is really looking for a solution to this problem, she needs to put all the pieces together," said Wilson Hernandez, a member of the Danbury Area Coalition for the Rights of Immigrants and a former president of the Ecuadorian Civic Center.
"She went there as a tourist, I guess, not as our representative," he said.
Johnson said Tuesday she was unaware that immigrant groups in Danbury had invited her to meet with them, but had discussed with her staff initiating such a meeting.
"We're anxious to meet with them," she said.
Johnson's trip also sparked criticism from Washington watchdogs. William Allison, editor-at-large at Washington's Center for Public Integrity, which studies congressional travel, had questions about the Nature Conservancy's sponsorship.
He asked why an agency that relies on money from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or AID, would take Johnson and three other House members on such a trip.
"I know money is fungible, but the Nature Conservancy gets federal money, so the question is whether taxpayer money is funneled through them for lobbying," Allison said.
The Nature Conservancy, which gets about $42 million in federal government grants per year, spent a total of $64,227 on the trips of the members - Johnson and Reps. John M. Spratt, D-S.C., Sam Johnson, R-Texas, and Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., - and their spouses.
Asked why Johnson's husband, Ted, came along at Nature Conservancy expense, Petterson said that the trip came during a 10-day Memorial Day congressional recess.
"In order to get folks to see such far-flung places that matter so much in terms of conservation, you need to give them time to spend time with their families," he said.
Johnson agreed, saying "a member's life involves being separated from their family most of each week, and when I'm `home,' I'm really not home very much."
Furthermore, she said, her husband, a retired physician, was a science major at Harvard who has "long, extensive experience with plant and animal biology."
What does Johnson's husband have to do with the business of Congress? How did her trip benefit the people of Danbury? If she was went on the trip to address the immigration problem in Danbury, why didn't the Republican mayor of that city know anything about it?
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, whose call for increased immigration enforcement was ultimately rejected by the state, said he had not been aware before the trip that Johnson was going to Ecuador.Johnson takes a trip to Ecuador and this is all she has said on the subject? Danbury Mayor Boughton wasn't informed on the trip although Danbury is in her district? How did this trip benefit the people in the fifth district?
He said he was not personally briefed after the trip, but Johnson's district office sent him information that mentioned comments she had made in the House of Representatives.
On July 19, Johnson briefly referred to the trip during a debate on the Foreign Relations Authorization Act.
She said "illegal immigrants are hard workers and hope only for a better life," but find it difficult to fulfill their dreams and "can cause tremendous problems in cities like Danbury" by straining city services.
UPDATE: WVIT, WTNH, and WFSB picked up on the story this morning. We'll see if their are any updates later today. If anyone has info on this (and it can be verified), shoot me an email.
UPDATE 2: I gave the impression that the Danbury Area Coalition for the Rights of Immigrants invited Johnson to Ecuador when they did not. They invited her to talk with them. Sorry for the confusion.