FAIRFIELD — Travel in 2013 by Rep. John Garamendi cost private sponsors about $70,000 – the most spending on trips for any U.S. congressional representative.
Assemblyman Dan Logue, who’s running against Garamendi for Congress, says the travel to three foreign countries diverts Garamendi’s attention from problems here and in the rest of California that include unemployment and the drought.
“He’s No. 1 when it comes to globetrotting,” said Logue, R-Loma Rica. “Globetrotting isn’t going to solve our problems in California.”
Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, has been in public office for 40 years and part of a system where taking junkets is common, Logue said. The state assemblyman also said the travel, part of congressional trips analyzed by Washington, D.C., based-Legistorm, shows Garamendi believed winning another term was assured.
“When he took the trips, I think he thought he had a cakewalk,” Logue said.
“He’s realizing,” Logue said, “that this is going to be a tough fight.”
Garamendi, who represents the 3rd Congressional District that includes Solano County, went with his wife Patricia to Sudan in February, Turkey in April and Ethiopia in August, according to the U.S. House of Representatives travel filings database that Legistorm used to analyze congressional trips.
“These visits did not cost the U.S. taxpayer a single dime, but they did provide Congressman Garamendi with valuable opportunities to advance America’s foreign policy and national security,” the congressman’s office said in a written statement. ”Congress needs leaders who are willing to learn and to share America’s story with the rest of the world.”
Garamendi serves on the House Agriculture Committee, which sets policy for the Food for Peace program, and was able to evaluate this and other agricultural assistance programs, the statement said.
He also serves on the House Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. military forces serving in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, the Middle East and around the world, noted the statement. Garamendi said he met with the foreign minister of Ethiopia, the president of Tanzania and the vice president of South Sudan, who is now involved in that nation’s civil war.
Legistorm, an online source for congressional staff salaries, trips and gifts, said lawmakers in Congress and their staff members took nearly 1,900 trips costing $6 million. That’s a record for the most privately funded trips since 2007, when reforms began after abuses by since-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who took officials to sites that included golf courses in Scotland.
The $70,000 figure by Legistorm for Garamendi’s travels includes airfare, lodging, meals and security.
Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Common Cause that advocates for accountable government, said the three countries Garamendi visited suggest the importance of the trips.
“None of them sound like vacation hot spots,” she said.
Boyle added that destinations, as well as what work may have been undertaken, help indicate whether travel involves a junket. Bringing a spouse, Boyle added, “also can be – not necessarily – an indication that it’s more of a boondoggle.”
“Common Cause believes congressmen should get out of Washington, D.C.,” Boyle said, “and see the world.”
“The concern is that special interests flying members of Congress around the world are getting an up-close audience,” said Boyle, who added that the public lacks such access.
Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that says it seeks to champion citizen interests before Congress, said the destination of trips matters less than the sponsor.
Congressional representatives get good accommodations when they travel, Holman said.
“He’s not staying in a shack in South Sudan,” Holman said of Garamendi.
The travel forms submitted for the congressman’s travels includes stays at Hyatt hotels during his South Sudan trip, at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for $312 a night and at the Marti Istanbul Hotel in Turkey for $298 a night. The website for the Marti Istanbul states, “Enjoy being cosmopolitan in the heart of Istanbul” and touts the 11-floor hotel as “Turkish hospitality at its soaring best.”
Holman said the Aspen Institute Congressional Program that sponsored Garamendi’s trips to Turkey and Ethiopia is an education effort and “really doesn’t want anything out of Congress or Garamendi.”
“They don’t have business pending before Congress,” Holman said.
The House of Representatives form completed for Garamendi’s trip Aug. 9-19 to Ethiopia notes that the congressman and his wife served in that country for their Peace Corps volunteer years and that the two were using personal time to visit schools and a village there.
Approval from the Committee on Ethics for the travel to Ethiopia noted that the trip includes four days at Garamendi’s personal expense. The Aspen Institute program relates to Garamendi’s work on the House Armed Services Committee, the form states. Sponsorship by the Aspen Institute includes support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, according to the House of Representatives.
Travel to Turkey was by business class on a commercial airline. Travel in South Sudan included a charter flight at an expected cost of $2,253 per person. The nonprofit charity CARE sponsored the South Sudan trip. A representative of the charity said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation paid for the travel.
Steven Radelet, a Georgetown University professor who was among speakers at the conference in Ethiopia, said he spent a lot of time with Garamendi and other congressional representatives during trips to villages.
“We were not in any fancy town,” Radelet said. “We went to an elementary school.”
“These members of Congress learned a lot,” he said, “at no cost to Americans.”
The professor had this to say of Garamendi: “He’s very knowledgeable.”
Radelet spoke about the importance of the United States’ role in Africa, where he said AIDS drugs provided by the generosity of U.S. taxpayers have saved 6 million lives.
Radelet said of a trip to Sudan that, “It’s no place you go for a holiday.”
“That’s a tough, tough place,” the professor said.
George Guynn Jr. of the Central Solano Citizen-Taxpayer Group said costly travel by public officials persists.
“It’s totally out of control,” he said. “It’s the same way at the local level.”
Guynn referred to travel spending by the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District, which the Solano County grand jury reported in May cost $135,169 between 2010-12 and included conferences in Monterey and Newport Beach.
“The only thing I think they’ve learned is they can get by with it,” he said of travel by officials.
Guynn questioned the justification that such travel is warranted because it provides officials with information for public policy decisions.
“You can come up with some kind of lame excuse for anything,” he said.
Public Citizen representative Holman said a separate trip – not part of the $70,000 in travel Garamendi undertook – taken to Google in Mountain View by Christopher Austin, acting chief of staff for Garamendi, represents the corporate-sponsored travel the watchdog group opposes.
“That is problematic,” Holman said of the August travel that cost of $1,171. “They want something,” he said of Google.
Congressional staff members hold a lot of influence on congressional representatives, Holman said.
The one-day, Aug. 27 program required two nights of lodging because of trip logistics, Austin said in his House of Representatives form about the travel. He said it’s important to be informed about contributions to the state economy by one of California’s leading companies. The House Ethics Committee said because the trip sponsor employs a federal lobbyist, Austin could participate in official activity on only one calendar day. The trip included a day at Austin’s expense.
Google in its form for the House of Representatives said it invited chiefs of staff for all of California’s congressional representatives to its global headquarters in Santa Clara County. The “American Innovation” event included a demonstration of Google Glass technology and the driverless car known as Project Chauffeur, according to the travel form.
Garamendi’s office said in its statement that, “Technology is a major engine for job growth in Northern California and the 3rd District is home to many technology businesses.”
“It’s helpful for our staff to be as knowledgeable as possible about technology policy and opportunities to create more jobs for our constituents,” the statement reads in part.
Reach Ryan McCarthy at 427-6935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.