A "Two-Fer" for Congressman Etheridge
When Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) flew to Kansas City, Mo., in May to brief crop insurance company officials on the just-passed farm bill, he scored a two-fer.
* The non-profit National Crop Insurance Services, Inc., paid his $1,592 travel and hotel tab so he could speak to an "education and training" meeting of the group.
* Some of the officials attending gave $7,400 to the Etheridge for Congress campaign committee at a breakfast fund-raiser that took place right before the meeting began.
Etheridge chairs the House Agriculture Committee panel that oversees the federally-subsidized crop insurance program. As one of the negotiators drafting the final farm bill approved by the House on May 15, Etheridge played a key role in shaping the final legislation.
After queries from The Post's Investigations Blog about the legality of the dual payments, Etheridge's office announced last week that his campaign was reimbursing National Crop Insurance Services for the costs of the travel and fundraiser. Etheridge's spokeswoman, Joanne Peters, said the expenses would be disclosed on the congressman's campaign finance report.
Congressional travel that combines fund-raising and appearances at events sponsored by lobbyists and special interests has long been a murky issue for the Federal Election Commission and the congressional ethics committees.
The FEC has ruled it illegal for a private group to pay for a trip that is "campaign related," as travel to a fund-raising event is considered to be, according to legal sources.
But a member can hold a fund-raiser nearby a conference attended by dozens of potential contributors as long as travel and expenses are paid out of campaign funds.
ABC News recently disclosed that Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) used the loophole in January to pay their way to the annual conference of the American Association of Airport Executives on Hawaii's Big Island. The AAAE arranged to throw fundraisers for both lawmakers "amidst beautiful beaches and championship golf courses" and it was all perfectly legal under current rules.
Ellen Miller of the the watchdog group Sunlight Foundation described the gambit as a "shellgame...It is still lobbyist money influencing lawmakers."
That word apparently failed to reach the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which gave advance approval to Etheridge's privately sponsored travel to Kansas City. That may be because word of the fundraiser was buried in a daily schedule attached to Etheridge's official request for approval.
National Crop Insurance Services (NCIS) describes itself as a not-for-profit organization representing the interests of more than 60 crop insurance companies. President Bob Parkerson did not reply to a message left on his office phone.
In his talk to NCIS, Etheridge apologized for the fact that "your industry has come under fierce criticism ...from congressional committees that don't understand how the federal crop insurance program works."
That appeared to be a slap at Etheridge's Democratic colleague, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.,), who last year branded the crop insurance program "a textbook example of waste, fraud and abuse in federal spending." Waxman chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which held a special hearing on the program in May 2007. The Post, in its 2006 series on waste and abuse in farm subsidies, reported how a collection of niche insurance companies have made billions in profits from the federal crop insurance program, even as the government has lost billions covering the riskiest claims.
Etheridge has long worked to expand crop insurance for North Carolina peanut and sweet potato growers, and he told the Kansas City meeting he was "not happy" with funding cuts in the farm bill.
The legislation reduces by 2.3 percent the federal share of private insurers' administrative costs. But the bill provides millions of dollars to USDA to help detect fraud against the companies by farmers, and it terminates an experimental program that had allowed crop insurance companies to compete for business by reducing premiums. The program was opposed by thousands of crop insurance agents and many of the private companies.
-- By Dan Morgan
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