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Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh)
Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh)

Owens didn't report lobbyist role in Taiwan trip: "no place on the form to disclose it"

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Congressman Bill Owens says he will repay more than $20,000 dollars for a junket that he took last December to Taiwan. The trip was paid for by a university in Taiwan. And it was planned and organized by a New York lobbying firm, which is no longer allowed under House ethics rules.

As Brian Mann reports, Owens says his office never reported that the firm Park Strategies organized the trip because "there was no place on the form to disclose it."

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

In an interview Friday afternoon, Bill Owens initially suggested that his trip to Taiwan was proposed by Taiwanese officials.

"Early in 2011, they invited me to come over," Owens said.

But he then acknowledged that the idea for the trip came not from his office or with Taiwanese officials, but from a lobbying group called Park Strategies, saying "I believe youre correct that the first impetus for this trip came from them."

Owens also initially downplayed his own role in arranging the trip, but he acknowledged that he spoke directly with former Senator Alphonse D’Amato, who heads Park Strategies, before leaving for Taiwan in December 2011.

"I did not focus on the cost of the trip.  They indicated that they were paying for it.  I didn't know if I was saying in a five star hotel or a two star hotel."

The four-day trip was paid for by a Taiwanese university and cost roughly 22,000 dollars.  Owens says the trip was cleared by House ethics officials, but he confirmed that his office never reported that it was organized by a lobbying group.

"There was no place on the form to disclose it. It was not a question asked of us by ethics," he said.

House ethics rules do in fact specifically prohibit foreign travel that’s facilitated by lobbyists, a change made following the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. 

There is an exemption when that travel involves educational organizations – but only if the school involved is American based. Owens says the complexities of those rules confused his staff.

"I can tell you from my perspective that I would never engage in that kind of activity again without disclosing it to [the Ethics Committee]."

Owens also defended the decision to bring his wife on the trip, arguing that the presence of his spouse is important for the cultural exchange. 

Owens’ opponent in the race, Watertown Republican Matt Doheny issued a statement through his campaign spokesman Jude Seymour condemning the trip, writing that lobbyists arranged "a luxurious Christmas vacation for [Rep. Owens] and his wife." 

This is expected to be one of the most competive congressional races in New York state in 2012.

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