Inquiry beyond goblets

Joe Wilson

WASHINGTON -- The congressional ethics investigation of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson is broader than previously disclosed and goes well beyond his use of $12 in per diem expense money to buy six decorative goblets in Afghanistan last year.

Congressional staff sources with detailed knowledge of the probe said ethics investigators are examining Wilson's foreign trips -- at least 30 in the last eight years -- and his use of per diem expense money while traveling abroad.

Wilson, a Lexington Republican who acquired overnight fame last year after shouting "You lie!" as President Barack Obama addressed Congress, has a reputation among his peers as a frequent foreign traveler, the sources said.

"The reason he was singled out was because he travels a lot on the government dime," one source said.

Wilson confirmed earlier in the week that examiners with the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent, nonpartisan agency established in 2008 following a wave of lawmaker scandals, had recently interviewed him about his use of per diem expense money.

Wilson said then that the investigators' focus was on his use of $12 to buy six small goblets in Afghanistan in August 2009.

Wilson, though, confirmed in an interview Thursday the interview covered other expenditures made on separate foreign trips, though he said he didn't recall the details.

"I do not remember which trips they spoke about," Wilson told McClatchy. "I don't remember specifically."

Since he joined Congress after a December 2001 special election, Wilson's overseas travel has cost taxpayers about $100,000 in itemized expenses, including roughly $38,000 in per diem money intended to cover meals and lodging.

Congressmen can travel as often as they like. Wilson ranks No. 29 among the 435 members of the House in travel spending -- and at No. 39 among 734 members who've served since 1994, according to data published in the Congressional Record, the official proceedings of the House and Senate.

Because most of Wilson's trips have been to visit U.S. troops around the world, they have entailed significant additional costs beyond the $100,000 -- including large sums of non-itemized, taxpayer-covered funds to pay for U.S. Air Force planes used to transport him and other lawmakers.

Wilson strongly defended his trips abroad as forming an essential part of his required duties as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and as senior Republican on its military preparedness subcommittee.

"I stand by the (dollar) numbers," Wilson said. "I want to visit with the troops. That's a very important function of my job as a member of the military preparedness subcommittee. In my duties, I ought to know the individual concerns of troops and their families. That requires me to be with the troops on the ground."

Wilson, who has visited Afghanistan 10 times and has made repeated trips to Iraq, said those journeys have sometimes exposed him to threat of physical harm. "I do understand that I'm at risk when I do this. I've put on body armor. I've put on helmets. I've followed orders on what to do if we come under mortar attack."

Wilson is a former military lawyer who reached the rank of colonel while serving from 1975 to 2003 in the South Carolina Army National Guard. His four sons have served in the military.

Wilson is a more frequent foreign traveler than nearly all of his colleagues on the Armed Services Committee.

Among the panel's 25 Republican members, Wilson has spent the most on overseas trips since 1994. Five of its 35 Democratic members have incurred greater costs.

Fellow South Carolina U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat who chairs the House Budget Committee, sits with Wilson on the armed services panel.

Spratt, the committee's second-ranking Democrat, has spent $31,000 on foreign trips going back to 1994 -- a period twice as long as Wilson's travels.

Wilson's aides said his wife, Roxanne, has accompanied him on "four or five" of his 30 foreign trips.

The practice of lawmakers' spouses traveling with them on official business is widespread in Congress, one that draws regular criticism from good-government groups focused on ethics and spending in Washington.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is examining four other lawmakers in addition to Wilson: Democratic Reps. Alcee Hastings of Florida, Solomon Ortiz of Texas and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, and Republican Reps. Robert Aderholt of Alabama.

The panel has not yet decided whether it will forward the Wilson investigation to the U.S. House Ethics Committee. The agency is unlikely to make a decision before Nov. 2 because of a blackout rule that prohibits actions within 60 days of an election.

The silver lining for Wilson might be the agency's track record: Among 59 cases it has probed, the office has referred only 12 to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation.

A Congressional Research Service report earlier this year found that the cost of lawmakers' foreign travel has more than tripled since 1994.

"During every congressional recess, there are reports about the absurd costs associated with Congress's taxpayer-funded junkets," said Tom Schatz, head of Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington.

Wilson has been punished by his colleagues for having violated House standards of conduct for its members. The House last September passed a measure formally reprimanding Wilson for his "You lie" yell, which made Wilson a hero among conservative activists across the country. He has used his elevated standing with them to raise more than $4 million in campaign donations in the last year, more than any other incumbent or challenger seeking election to the House.

Wilson now is trying to turn the ethics probe of his overseas spending to his political advantage. As soon as it came to light earlier this week, he sent a campaign fundraising e-mail to supporters.

Under a photo of one of the Afghanistan goblets next to a Coca-Cola can, Dustin Olson, Wilson's campaign manager, wrote:

"Any inquiry into an item half the size of a 12-ounce Coke can is another example of how (U.S. House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and her liberal allies have their priorities all wrong in Washington. This is what we can expect from folks who have attacked Joe for visiting our troops in a war zone."

But the same agency that's investigating Wilson has drawn fire from some of Pelosi's closest political allies for its probes of Democratic lawmakers.

The last two cases referred by the Office of Congressional Ethics to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation focus on U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters and Laura Richardson, who are African-American Democrats.

Six of the 12 cases in which the agency has recommended expanded probes involve African-American lawmakers.

That has led 20 Congressional Black Caucus members to push legislation that would severely limit the agency's powers.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat and former CBC chairman, hasn't cosponsored the bill but said he is sympathetic to its sponsors.

"Several members have raised concerns with the OCE, and I share many of those concerns," Clyburn told McClatchy. "At some point they will need to be examined and addressed."

Those sentiments put Clyburn in league with one of his fiercest political opponents.

U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner recently threatened to abolish or defang the still-young agency if the Republicans regain control of Congress in November.

The agency Tuesday referred three GOP lawmakers to the House ethics committee after investigating their fundraising solicitations of banks and brokerages shortly before a House vote in December on financial-services regulatory legislation.

As part of a broader package of Democratic-backed ethics reforms, the House established the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008, and it began probing lawmakers last year.

The agency is overseen by a board of eight - four Democrats and four Republicans - among them, five former members of Congress.

Some analysts, on Capitol Hill and beyond, said the bipartisan anger directed at the independent ethics agency proves that it's doing the job it was created to do.

"Its power needs to be expanded, not circumscribed," said Norm Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute analyst who has written extensively about congressional ethics.

Frequent Flier

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent nonpartisan agency created in 2008, is investigating Rep. Joe Wilson's foreign travel and use of per diem expense money. Some facts about Wilson's travel.

--Number of foreign trips since May 2002: 30

--Itemized costs: $99,767*

--Per diem expense money: $37,533*

--Rank in total costs among 435 representatives: 29

--Rank in costs among 734 representatives since 1994: 39

*Costs and per diem expenses don't include most recent trip, to Afghanistan