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 gives?
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, they are.
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 gifts.
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 entry.”
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.