Illinois lawmakers see world on others’ tab

By Dennis Conrad

WASHINGTON – Members of the Illinois congressional delegation – including two who announced their retirement – have reported nearly $157,000 in travel expenses picked up by taxpayers or private sponsors since last year, according to an Associated Press review.

The trips have largely been made to other countries – about 40 in all, according to public finance filings for trips made between January 2007 and April 2008. Ghana, China, Afghanistan, Costa Rica – all were visited by at least one of the federal lawmakers.

Two Republicans, the now-retired Rep. Dennis Hastert and retiring Rep. Ray LaHood, and two Democrats, Reps. Danny Davis and Luis Gutierrez, accounted for more than half the reported value of all the trips. Hastert’s tab was more than $20,000 of the $72,000 total of taxpayer-funded expenses.

In many cases, the reported value of overseas trips seems low, but that is generally because lawmakers can sometimes use military airplanes rather than commercial flights, for which airfare expenses must be listed.

For example, Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-highest Democrat, generally used military planes in visiting Pakistan, Afghanistan, Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait – and there were no reported costs for that under congressional rules. When he took a commercial charter back to the United States from Jordan because the military plane his group intended to use was not available, the State Department paid for the $8,531 cost.

Durbin, as he has in past years, returned part of his per diem, spending only $827 of $1,195 allotted.

Davis led all 21 members of the delegation, with $23,118 in expenses, almost half of which was for a visit in April to China paid for by a longtime political supporter seeking help to become a partner with the Chinese in a factory to be built in Inner Mongolia.

Davis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who represents a largely black district, said he went to China to help a fellow African-American friend and supporter out of a desire to advance black entrepreneurship in the huge Chinese market where American blacks have had little involvement.

That friend, former sharecropper Willie Wilson, is head of Omar Medical Supplies Inc.

Wilson, either directly or through his company, has contributed about $20,000 to state and federal campaign funds maintained by Davis. Wilson said he works with a Chinese-based manufacturer, but wants to own a factory.

Davis said the China visit began on a Sunday night with a round of meetings and dinner in Beijing, followed by 10 hours of travel to Inner Mongolia for an agreement-signing ceremony. By Tuesday, he was in Washington, D.C.

Davis said “I guess I really wasn’t needed,” but Wilson insisted that if it were not for Davis’s presence, he would not have been able to meet the Chinese foreign minister. He said that meeting helped complete a deal where the Illinois businessman will get a quarter-interest in a 150,000-square-foot factory employing up to 300 workers making medical supplies.

Wilson predicted the investment in China will help create jobs in Illinois and there should be increased sales around the world.

“I have to take my hat off to him,” he said of Davis.

Illinois politicos on the go

A list of nations that Illinois congressional members visited from January 2007 through April 2008, according to House and Senate records

House

1. Bobby Rush., D-Ill.: Ghana, Haiti

2. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.: Morocco, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda, Kenya, Spain

3. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill.: Belgium, France

4. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.: Tunisia, Turkey, Croatia, Germany

5. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.: None

6. Peter Roskam, R-Ill.: None

7. Danny Davis, D-Ill.: China, Ghana, Germany, Liechtenstein

8. Melissa Bean, D-Ill.: Kuwait, Iraq, Germany, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany

9. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.: None

10. Mark Kirk, D-Ill.: China

11. Jerry Weller, R-Ill.: None

12. Jerry Costello, D-Ill.: Belgium, France, United Kingdom

13. Judy Biggert, R-Ill.: None

14. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. (retired Dec. 2007): Japan, China, United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Colombia

14. Bill Foster, D-Ill. (succeeded Hastert in March 2008): None

15. Tim Johnson, R-Ill.: None

16. Don Manzullo, R-Ill.: Canada.

17. Phil Hare, D-Ill.: Israel

18. Ray LaHood, R-Ill.: Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Greece, Sudan, Egypt, Germany, Costa Rica

19. John Shimkus, R-Ill.: Portugal

Senate

1. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan

2. Barack Obama, D-Ill.: None