WASHINGTON — The House ethics committee is investigating whether five Democratic lawmakers, including two committee chairmen, received improper gifts in travel to Caribbean conferences 2007 and 2008.
The committee said it was investigating: Charles Rangel of New York, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee; Carolyn Kilpatrick of Michigan; Donald Payne of New Jersey; Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and Donna Christensen, the delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The annual Multinational Business Conference on Caribbean affairs is held in a different Caribbean country each year, and is officially sponsored by the Carib News Foundation. The Carib News is a small Caribbean newspaper based in New York City.
The lawmakers under scrutiny said the Committee on Standards of Conduct _ the ethics committee's full name _ approved the travel in advance as required by House rules.
Despite the permission to attend, there are indications that the committee is questioning whether corporations with lobbyists actually financed the lawmakers' transportation, hotels, meals and other expenses.
House rules approved in 2007 severely limit lawmakers and their staffs from accepting the travel from an entity that employs or retains a registered lobbyist. That would explain why the committee is now scrutinizing the past two years of an event that was held for the 13th time in 2008.
In preliminary interviews, investigators asked whether there were any other sponsors other than the Carib News Foundation, said I. Lanier Avant, chief of staff to Thompson.
Lawmakers said it was their understanding that the Carib News Foundation alone paid their expenses.
"Congressman Rangel complied with all of the ethics rules related to this trip, which was approved by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct," said his spokesman, Emile Milne. "He looks forward to a speedy resolution of this matter and will have no further comment until the committee completes its work."
Avant, Thompson's top aide, said "Neither chairman Thompson nor I have any knowledge of any corporation or private entity that funds the Caribbean News Foundation. "The only sponsor, the sole sponsor of the trip Chairman Thompson took was the Caribbean News Foundation, to his knowledge."
Christensen said, "My staff and I are confident that we followed the required procedures in regards to travel to the conference. I look forward to a quick and just resolution to the matters at hand."
Kilpatrick commented, "The organizing foundation submitted the required information to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The ... committee approved the trip. I subsequently submitted my request to travel and received written approval from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to attend the conference."
Rangel already is under investigation by the committee on unrelated matters, including his use of official resources to contact donors, his lease arrangements for apartments and his compliance with financial disclosure requirements.
Payne's office did not respond to request for comment.
A four-member subcommittee will conduct the investigation. The committee, without any other notification, posted an announcement of the investigation on its Internet site Wednesday night.