Owens ethics probe continues

The House Ethics Committee announced Wednesday that it will continue to review U.S. Rep. Bill Owens’ 2011 trip to Taiwan that may have violated congressional rules.

Meanwhile, a preliminary report by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which was completed in August 2012 and made public on Wednesday, states that Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh, “may have accepted payment of travel expenses for an officially connected trip to Taiwan from an impermissible source, resulting in an impermissible gift, in violation of federal law and House rules.”

The report also says Owens may have accepted travel expenses for a trip that was “in some part planned, organized, requested, or arranged by agents of a foreign principal.”

“This is the next step in the process and I expect that ultimately it will result in an affirmation of my position that the trip was undertaken in the quest for jobs for my constituents and was done with every intention to comply with all applicable rules,” Owens said in a statement emailed to the Enterprise. “I hold myself and my office to the highest of ethical standards. Which is why, in abundance of caution, I have already personally reimbursed the sponsor of the trip for the cost.”

Owens traveled to Taiwan in December 2011 to promote economic development and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Taiwan, a major trade partner. In his initial ethics disclosure forms, Owens said the trip would be paid for by the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan.

It was later revealed that Park Strategies, a New York lobbyist firm founded by former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, organized the trip, which cost about $22,000. The OCE report says the trip was actually sponsored by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to the report, Owens’ trip could have been paid for by the Taiwanese government under the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act, but because his wife traveled with him, that law no longer applied.

Additionally, participating in a lobbyist-organized trip is prohibited under House rules. Owens later reimbursed the trip’s sponsor.

The OCE’s report notes that a panel voted 6-0 to recommend the House Ethics Committee continue its review of Owens’ trip. The committee’s chairman and ranking member – Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif., respectively – said in a statement that the committee will extend its review of Owens’ trip.

“The Committee notes that the mere fact of conducting further review of a referral, and any mandatory disclosure of such further review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgement on behalf of this Committee,” the statement reads.

Owens’ chief political rival in last year’s race for New York’s 21st Congressional District, Watertown businessman Matt Doheny, tried to use the Taiwan trip to raise questions about Owens’ ethics. On Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee blasted Owens over the report’s details.

“Instead of focusing on representing his constituents back home, Bill Owens took a $22,000 trip to Taiwan and stayed in a $500 per night hotel – all on the dime of Taiwan and its lobbyists,” NRCC spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement. “Not only was this behavior hopelessly out-of-touch, but it may have also been against the law. This is certainly not the kind of behavior that the people of the 21st District of New York are looking for in their Congressman.”

Owens said his trip was a fact-finding mission. The goal, he said, was to research ways to spur job growth in the North Country.

“With that in mind, I visited Taiwan to meet with representatives from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp (TSMC), a high-tech company considering opening a facility in Upstate New York, potentially creating hundreds, if not thousands of good paying jobs,” Owens said in his statement. “In addition to meeting with representatives from TSMC and other Taiwanese private and public officials, I met with the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce and promoted investment and job creation in Northern New York via the EB5 program, which allows foreign investors in the US economy to obtain U.S. visas.”