Rep. Bill Owens has repaid the $22,000 a Taiwan university spent to fly him and his wife to Taiwan in December 2011 and put them up in luxury hotels and feed them fine meals for four days, and we’re supposed to be satisfied with that.
But we’re not satisfied. We’re envious and appalled.
First the envy: We’d love to have someone offering to pay for our extravagant trips to fascinating places.
Next the outrage: This guy works for us! And he’s calling this deluxe vacation work!
Put aside for the moment how the trip was arranged and how underhanded the whole escapade was. We think Owens, who will soon be seeking to represent the local area in Congress, can find more effective ways to spend his time than jetting to Taiwan with his wife for four days of fine dining and a tour of Taipei’s National Palace Museum.
It’s an insult to all the hard-working people in Owens’ district for him to call a trip like this “work.”
But even if you believe the blather from Owens about promoting upstate New York in meetings with Taiwanese officials and business representatives, this trip broke the rules.
Owens opened his wallet after a May 10 article by Justin Elliott for the investigative journalism website ProPublica revealed details of the trip, including that a lobbying firm, Park Strategies of New York, had set it up on behalf of its client, the government of Taiwan.
Taiwan dwells in the shadow of its monstrous neighbor, China, so currying favor with a powerful friend like the U.S. must always seem like a good idea. Taiwan also has a more immediate motivation for giving gifts to U.S. politicians — the country is trying to persuade the U.S. government to sell it F-16 fighter jets.
Park Strategies is registered as a foreign agent for Taiwan, as are the two executives for the firm who set up Owens’ trip, John Zagame and Sean King. Sean King is the son of U.S. Rep. Peter King, a congressman from downstate New York. Peter King is good friends with a former U.S. senator from New York, Al D’Amato, who is the founder of Park Strategies.
It’s incestuous, and it gets worse.
According to the excellent reporting done by ProPublica’s Elliot, after Owens returned from his trip, several Park Strategies executives, including Sean King and Al D’Amato’s brother, Armand, and Al D’Amato’s son, Christopher, made cash donations to Owens’ campaign, amounting to $3,500. Al D’Amato’s wife, Katuria, tossed another $2,500 into the pot.
And there’s this: Last July, before planning for the Taiwan trip got going, Owens signed a letter backing the sale of F-16 jets to Taiwan.
We are encouraged Owens, instead of hiding from questions, has faced the press and pledged never to take a lobbyist-organized trip again. What distinguished this trip from many others taken by U.S. representatives, and made it wrong, was the involvement of Park Strategies.
Owens has pointed out the House Ethics Committee cleared the trip in advance, although he did not disclose Park Strategies’ role to the committee, which is like a teenager saying Mom OK’d using the car, although he didn’t tell her he was driving to a keg party.
Owens has said the Ethics Committee’s form did not ask whether lobbyists were involved, but if you look at the form, it does ask for all sponsors of the trip and defines sponsors as those who organize and conduct the trip, as well as pay for it.
In Owens’ case, the Chinese Culture University was the purported sponsor, and paid for the trip. But the real sponsor was the Taiwanese government, working through its agent, Park Strategies. The trip’s unstated but obvious purpose was to instill in Owens a sense of obligation to Taiwan, to influence his political positions on matters such as the F-16 sale.
What is discouraging about this story is how common it is for members of Congress to take such trips and how readily their flimsy justifications are accepted, both by government officials and members of the public.
Representatives say they are trying to understand the culture or make business contacts, and they are granted license to go off jet-setting, with nothing better to do than have lunch at some “divine little place” in Taipei or Tel Aviv.
Even if Park Strategies had not been involved with Owens’ trip to Taiwan, it would have been an unseemly and unnecessary junket.
Getting elected should be seen as an opportunity for public service, not fancy vacations with your wife. If you’re in Congress and you think your time is best spent on sight-seeing in the world’s great places, we have a suggestion: Retire.
Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley and citizen representative Jody Chwiecko.