Reprinted from Roll
Call (March 15, 2011)
Q: I have a question regarding whether people outside Congress can
face liability for conduct during Members’ travel expense certification process.
The reason for my question is that I heard that an employee of the Carib News
Foundation was in trouble for submitting false travel forms to the House Ethics
Committee regarding travel expenses the foundation paid for certain Members.
This didn’t make sense to me, though, because I thought that Congressional
ethics committees do not have jurisdiction over people outside of Congress. What
A: Well, you are half right. Yes, Congressional ethics committees do
not have jurisdiction over people outside Congress. However, this does not mean
that people outside Congress are free from liability for missteps during
Members’ travel expense approval process. Even though the House Ethics Committee
cannot punish outsiders for errors during the process, federal prosecutors can.
And, in the case of the Karl Rodney, co-founder of the Carib News Foundation,
Before turning to the charges against Rodney, a little background on the
travel rules is in order. As you may be aware, the Congressional gift rules
broadly prohibit Members from accepting anything of value unless an exception
applies. The travel rules are essentially one big group of exceptions to the
prohibition on gifts. The rules define certain limited circumstances in which
Members may accept payment of their travel expenses without violating the ban on
The travel rules are complex and convoluted. An entire chapter, more than 30
pages, of the House Ethics Manual is devoted to the process by which Members can
have their travel expenses paid by an outside source. But your question does not
concern some technical application of this process. Your question is much more
fundamental — whether people outside Congress can face liability for missteps in
the process. And the answer to that question is a resounding yes. The case of
Karl Rodney is an excellent reminder.
What is Rodney accused of doing wrong? In short, lying to Congress. In 2009,
a subcommittee of the House Ethics Committee began an investigation regarding
several Members’ trips to business conferences hosted in the Caribbean islands
by the Carib News Foundation. In advance of the trips, each of the Members had
obtained the House Ethics Committee’s approval for the Carib News Foundation to
cover the expenses of their trips.
To gain such approval, they told the committee that the Carib News Foundation
was the sole sponsor of their trips. As it turned out, the report concluded,
this was not true. Unbeknownst to the Members, several corporations had
allegedly paid for portions of the expenses and therefore should have been
listed as sponsors.
The report concluded, however, that the Members under investigation were
unaware that the corporations were really paying for their trips. The Members
had relied on information provided by the Carib News Foundation and gave that
information to the Ethics Committee. The subcommittee report concluded that this
information was false and that the foundation employees who submitted the
information, including Rodney, knew it was false. The subcommittee lacked the
power to punish Rodney itself, so instead referred him and the other employees
to the Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice conducted its own investigation and last month
filed criminal charges against Rodney. Rodney is charged with violating a
federal statute that makes it illegal to make false statements to the
government. Specifically, the statute applies to anyone who, in a matter within
the jurisdiction of the federal government, knowingly and willfully “(1)
falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material
fact; (2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or
representation; or (3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the
same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or
During the travel process, a sponsor of a Member’s trip, such as the Carib
News Foundation, must provide the Member with a sponsor certification form
setting forth certain information regarding the trip. On the form, a sponsor
must certify that it is the sole sponsor of the trip and that it has not
accepted any other source of funds earmarked directly or indirectly to finance
any aspect of the trip. The sponsor must sign the form directly below a
statement that “I certify that the information contained in this form is true,
complete, and correct to the best of my knowledge.” The charges against Rodney
allege that his travel sponsor form was false in that it failed to identify all
sponsors of the trip and also failed to disclose that other sources had
earmarked funds to finance aspects of the trip.
Rodney is scheduled to appear in court next month and faces up to five years
in jail. Whatever his ultimate sanction, his case demonstrates what is at stake
every time a travel sponsor prepares a sponsor certification form. Before
certifying that the forms are accurate, travel sponsors should make sure that
they really are.
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