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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Chris Shays caught red-handed

Whoops! Seems like Chris Shays has a little disclosure problem.
In April 2003, shortly after the U.S. military took Baghdad, Connecticut Representative Christopher Shays disregarded Pentagon warnings and joined an aid convoy, organized by the Connecticut-based charity Save the Children, as it drove from Kuwait into Iraq. From the Iraqi border city of Umm Qasr, Shays was able to stake a claim to being the first American congressman to cross the border after the U.S. invasion. His brief day-trip won him a fawning interview on CNN upon his return and remains an important part of his biography. In an election season where polls show a Democratic wave building by the day, Shays is currently in a fight for his political life against Democrat and Westport Selectwoman Diane Farrell. As one of the most vulnerable House Republicans, the unapologetically hawkish Shays often returns to his 14 trips to Iraq. "It was the weirdest thing," he told The Hartford Courant's NE Magazine of his initial visit in June. "I felt like I was trying to break out of jail getting into Iraq."

But, while Shays may want his constituents to know about his first--and most daring--trip to Iraq, he apparently doesn't want them to know how he got there. Shays's moment of triumph in Iraq came about because he happened to already be in the Middle East--attending the third Qatar-American Conference on Free Markets and Democracy in the tiny oil-rich nation of Qatar. Shays's visit was paid for by The Islamic Free Market Institute, a nonprofit group founded by GOP ally Grover Norquist and run by a protégé of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to help bring Muslims into the Republican fold. Days before he snuck across the border to cheer on Operation Iraqi Freedom, Shays was at the Doha Ritz Carlton, comparing Connecticut, a centuries-old, economically diverse democracy, to Qatar, a monarchy ruled by a single family since its independence in 1971. "This nation, like my small state, has always played a large role in advancing participatory democracy, civil discourse, and stable commerce," Shays told a well-heeled audience of Qatari politicians and businessmen over lunch.

Shays has been a strong advocate for public-disclosure rules over the years. "As public servants, we have a responsibility to uphold the ethics process, not weaken it," he told The Houston Chronicle in 2005, objecting to an effort to defang House ethics rules in the wake of revelations about Tom DeLay's overseas travels and ties to Abramoff. Those travel rules require members of Congress to file forms revealing all travel expenses paid by outside sources. But, despite his record of pushing for meticulous record-keeping, Shays's privately sponsored trip to Qatar was notably absent from his own annual federal financial disclosure form, filed in May 2004, in violation of House rules. Nor did he submit an amendment disclosing the sponsor of his Qatar trip until confronted in mid-October 2006 by The New Republic with internal Islamic Institute receipts for his plane tickets, which were provided by an Arab American source upset with Shays's foreign policy positions. Given his reputation and perennially contested district, it was a particularly foolhardy move.
Oh, but it gets better...
And, despite the fact that Shays boasted to The Stamford Advocate in 2003, "Every expense of my office is a matter of public record," Shays never listed the Qatar trip on his personal financial disclosure form. A first inquiry from this reporter in early October 2006 prompted his chief of staff, Betsy Hawkings, to find "a subcommittee trip that needed to be disclosed." (Subcommittee trips are generally paid for by the federal government.) A quick letter of amendment for this trip, which had been partially funded by a Norwegian source, was drafted on October 13, 2006. Asked specifically about the Qatar conference, Hawkings said: "I was told that was a subcommittee trip." Pressed again, this time with the Islamic Institute's receipts, Hawkings admitted the truth: Shays had flown to Qatar and back to the United States on the Islamic Institute's dime, and his meals and hotel in Qatar had been paid for by the Islamic Institute. Shays returned the unused portion of his tickets and those booked for his wife. "It was authorized as official travel," said Hawkings. "Just so there's no question, I'm going to file another amendment."
Oh, the rabbit hole goes deeper...
The danger of nondisclosure is that the true source of funding for foreign travel becomes untraceable. In Shays's case, knowing who sponsors his travel is especially pertinent; Shays chairs a congressional subcommittee overseeing U.S. national security matters. Just as Abramoff's nonprofit front groups routinely acted as thinly veiled conduits for money from his lobbying clients, the Islamic Institute's outlays for the representative's travels were rapidly reimbursed by the trip's real sponsor: Qatar. (In fact, Khaled Saffuri, the chairman of the Islamic Institute, had close ties to Abramoff and some of his foreign clients and had set up a short-lived lobbying firm, the Lexington Group, with him in 2002.) A letter from Saffuri to His Excellency Badar Al Dafa, then the Qatari ambassador to the United States, and a reply from the foreign ministry of Qatar shows that the Islamic Institute sought and received $143,150.93 from the foreign ministry days before Shays boarded the plane to Doha--and that the money was requested by Saffuri as reimbursement for, among other things, the congressman's travel.
I wonder when the local media will get around to asking Chris Shays about his luxury trip or is this subject over their head?