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DeLay investigation triggering 'ethics war'

The House ethics panel is to organize this week, as an investigation nears.

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"A lot of folks don't understand the rules and regulations relative to travel," says James Albertine, president of Albertine Enterprises and a longtime lobbyist. "Most lobbyists want to be ethical, but we live in a very complex town. The ability to get time with members has become a very important part of the profession."

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Last week, The Washington Post reported that expenses for a privately funded golfing trip to Scotland in 2000 were covered by a credit card in the name of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is currently under investigation by a Senate committee and the Justice Department over some $80 million in fees for work on behalf of Indian gambling interests on Capitol Hill.

Public interest groups say such travel payments would violate House rules. "The rules are clear: A lobbyist can't advance funds for travel," says Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Even so, the lobbyist provision is a fig leaf, critics say. "The lobbyist can't pay for the trip, and a lobbying firm can't pay for the trip, but the client can," says Mr. Noble. That client is a nonprofit group, which may have ties to industry. "So, the lobbyist still gets the benefit of going along with the member."

But lobbyists and some members of Congress say there is ambiguity in how the rules are interpreted. Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, says it's not unusual for lobbyists to help set up or arrange a trip. "I don't see that that's an issue. But the money has to come from a nonprofit. The lobbyist is acting as nothing more than a conduit for helping arrange that travel." As to whether a lobbyist can cover expenses for members of Congress with a credit card and be reimbursed by clients at a later date, he says: "That's to be discussed."

As the DeLay travel flap heated up, members are already wary about future privately sponsored travel. The conservative Heritage Foundation finds members reluctant to sign up for its annual summer policy wonker on social security.

"DeLay's ethics woes will have a chilling effect on congressional travel," says Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee, who ranks No. 2 in the number of trips paid for by private groups. Travel often helps members understand the issues, he says.

Meanwhile, House Democrats Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Marty Meehan of Massachusetts are developing a proposal to require lobbyists to disclose ties with nonprofit groups and the way private groups pay for travel. The bill would also double the time members and staff will have to wait after leaving Congress before becoming lobbyists to former colleagues.

At issue in the next round of ethics wars - and the reforms that follow - is how to break the appearance that Washington runs on a pay-to-play basis. After taking back the House in 1995, Republicans increased lobbyist disclosure requirements as well as restrictions on gifts they could give to lawmakers. It's these disclosure requirements that are providing grist for the next rounds in an ethics war.

"Power, if it doesn't corrupt, makes people numb to appearances. It happens over and over again," says Brooks Jackson, whose 1988 book "Honest Graft" helped define the last ethics war.