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Bill Owens faces an extended ethics review following his controversial 2011 trip to Taiwan. NCPR file photo
Bill Owens faces an extended ethics review following his controversial 2011 trip to Taiwan. NCPR file photo

Owens faces further ethics probe for Taiwan junket

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The House Ethics Committee announced yesterday that it is extending its review of Congressman Bill Owens' controversial trip to Taiwan in 2011. The panel also released a preliminary report from investigators.

That probe found that the Democrat from Plattsburgh may have violated congressional guidelines by making a trip paid for by a foreign government.

Investigators are also calling for subpoenas to be issued in the next phase of the probe.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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The review stems from a trip in late December 2011 made by Congressman Bill Owens and his wife, who visited the island nation of Taiwan.

In ethics disclosure forms, Owens stated that the trip would be paid for by a school in Taiwan called the Chinese Culture University.

"I did not focus on the cost of the trip," Owens said in an interview with NCPR in 2012. "They indicated that they were going to be paying for it. I didn't know if I was going to be staying in a five-star hotel or a two star hotel."

But Owens later acknowledged that the overseas travel – with a price tag of more than $22,000 — was organized by an American lobbying firm called Park Strategies that was working for the government of Taiwan.

An independent, bipartisan panel created by Congress in 2008 has been investigating the matter.

In a report completed last August but only made public yesterday, the panel concluded that the trip was largely sponsored and organized by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

That's an apparent violation of House ethics rules.

The report also concluded that Owens "knew, or should have known, that the government of Taiwan was conducting and organizing his travel to Taiwan."

Investigators also claim that Owens and his staff made extensive efforts to find a "private sponsor" to pay for the travel expenses of his wife.

These ethics charges became an issue during last fall's campaign, with Republican challenger Matt Doheny broadcasting this TV spot:

"Our congressman should obey the rules of the House and the laws of the land," the advertisement argued, "but Bill Owens failed to do that when he took an all-expense-paid first class trip to Taiwan, a trip arranged by DC lobbyists."

The ethics panel's August report wasn't issued publicly before the election.

That report notes that key members of the lobbying group Park Strategies, including former US Senator Alphonse D'Amato, refused to cooperate with the investigation.

Screen shot from a campaign ad aired by Republican Matt Doheny in 2012.
Screen shot from a campaign ad aired by Republican Matt Doheny in 2012.
The panel urged that subpoenas be issued compelling D'Amato and others to testify.

In documents sent to the House Ethics Committee last September, attorneys for Owens urged the group to drop its investigation, noting that Owens had paid Taiwan back for the travel expenses, and arguing that there was no clear evidence of a violation.

In a letter stamped "confidential," Owens' attorneys also urged the committee not to make the preliminary investigation public.

But yesterday, the House Ethics committee released the investigators report along with a statement that members of congress had decided to "extend the committee's review of the matter."

Owens, too, released a statement yesterday describing the ongoing review as the "next step in the process."

"I expect that ultimately it will result in an affirmation of my position that the trip was undertaken in the quest for jobs for my constituents and was done with every intention to comply with all applicable rules. I hold myself and my office to the highest of ethical standards. Which is why, in abundance of caution, I have already personally reimbursed the sponsor of the trip for the cost."

In last year's interview with NCPR, Owens acknowledged that the trip should have been handled differently, but said that the complicated process had confused his staff.

"I would never engage in that kind of activity again without disclosing that to ethics," Owens said, who said in his statement yesterday that the trip was made as part of an effort to bring new jobs to the North Country.

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