Congressmen, staff, lobbyists share a winter weekend on public's dime
Sunday, March 26, 2006
By Michelle Breidenbach
The New York Power Authority used public money to pay for a $25,000 ski weekend for Rep. John Sweeney, of New York; a Texas congressman and his wife; at least a dozen lobbyists; and other D.C. staffers in Lake Placid.
New Yorkers paid the way for the congressmen and other invited guests to ski, skate and toboggan like real Olympians for three days this winter.
While that sounds like fun, Sweeney, R-Clifton Park, told House and Senate ethics committees that the annual Congressional Winter Challenge is an official fact-finding business trip.
With Sweeney's word that it was not a party, the ethics committees in the House and Senate signed off on the trip. Activities that are substantially recreational are not considered part of a member's official duties, the House Ethics Committee on Standards of Official Conduct said.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, and his wife, Juanita, boarded a Southwest Airlines airplane bound for Albany with a handful of Capitol Hill staffers and at least a dozen Washington lobbyists, according to a guest list supplied by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
NYPA is a state public authority charged with making electricity for the citizens of New York. It dips into its profits for almost $1 million a year to give to charities it deems worthy. NYPA's leaders said they sent money to the Olympic venues in Lake Placid because the village buys its electricity from NYPA. So do Solvay and Skaneateles, which received none of this money.
Eugene Zeltmann,the recently retired president and chief executive officer of NYPA, owns a home in Lake Placid and has participated in the annual Olympic event. The Olympic Regional Development Authority, another state public authority, runs Whiteface and Gore mountains and other sports complexes.
ORDA spokesman Sandy Caligiore said Zeltmann is a frequent guest at Olympic events. Pictures from previous Congressional Challenges show Zeltmann riding a toboggan, playing hockey and posing with one arm around Jim Craig, the goalie for the U.S. hockey team in the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" victory.
Zeltmann said NYPA contributed to the event because it wanted to be a good neighbor and because it believes in ORDA's work. The authority has been a supporter for six years.
ORDA describes its corporate challenges as fantasy camps for anyone who ever wanted to be an Olympian. Participants break into three teams and score points for their performances in events like skiing, bobsled and hockey. On Saturday night, guests attend an awards dinner at the Lake Placid Golf House Restaurant. Everyone wins a medal.
This year, about 40 guests stayed the weekend in the same rooms where Olympic athletes have slept. They share a going-away breakfast in a glassed-in viewing area at the top of the ski jumps.
"We show them around, more or less, and give them the Olympic experience at all the venues," Caligiore said.
ORDA organized the Congressional Winter Challenge for the ninth year from Jan. 6 to 9. Caligiore said the New York Power Authority picked up the $25,000 tab.
The invitation reads, "While this trip has proven itself to be an enjoyable one for delegation members in the past, it is, nevertheless, an official trip authorized by the House and Senate Ethics Committees . . . intended to provide an opportunity for Members of Congress and Congressional staff to inspect and evaluate the manner in which federal funds have been used to strengthen the area's tourism industry."
The invitation officially comes from ORDA and the U.S. Olympic Committee, a nonprofit group chartered by Congress. ORDA says the impetus for the event comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The U.S. Olympic Committee said it's really Sweeney's event.
Sweeney, who has been ill in recent weeks, and his staff have not responded to requests for interviews.
Documents show Sweeney recently sought guidance on the event from both the House and Senate ethics committees.
The House committee warned Sweeney in a letter last fall he should be careful to let the Olympics groups invite guests to avoid the appearance of an endorsement by the House.
The House ethics opinion said the Olympics folks would be entertaining an unrelated group of Washington business representatives and the two groups would "engage in joint 'hospitality' on some occasions."
It is permissible for a member to take a privately sponsored trip in connection with his or her duties as an officeholder, the House committee said, if the trip is for fact-finding and if the recreational activities are "merely incidental to the trip."
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