You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A junket to remember.; Cost Qatar

is a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, andPublic Policy.

In April 2003, shortly after the U.S. military took Baghdad,Connecticut Representative Christopher Shays disregarded Pentagonwarnings and joined an aid convoy, organized by theConnecticut-based charity Save the Children, as it drove fromKuwait into Iraq. From the Iraqi border city of Umm Qasr, Shays wasable to stake a claim to being the first American congressman tocross the border after the U.S. invasion. His brief day-trip wonhim a fawning interview on CNN upon his return and remains animportant part of his biography. In an election season where pollsshow a Democratic wave building by the day, Shays is currently in afight for his political life against Democrat and WestportSelectwoman Diane Farrell. As one of the most vulnerable HouseRepublicans, the unapologetically hawkish Shays often returns tohis 14 trips to Iraq. "It was the weirdest thing," he told TheHartford Courant's NE Magazine of his initial visit in June. "Ifelt like I was trying to break out of jail getting into Iraq. "

But, while Shays may want his constituents to know about hisfirst--and most daring--trip to Iraq, he apparently doesn't wantthem to know how he got there. Shays's moment of triumph in Iraqcame about because he happened to already be in the MiddleEast--attending the third Qatar-American Conference on Free Marketsand Democracy in the tiny oil-rich nation of Qatar. Shays's visitwas paid for by The Islamic Free Market Institute, a nonprofitgroup founded by GOP ally Grover Norquist and run by a protege ofdisgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to help bring Muslims into theRepublican fold. Days before he snuck across the border to cheer onOperation Iraqi Freedom, Shays was at the Doha Ritz Carlton,comparing Connecticut, a centuries-old, economically diversedemocracy, to Qatar, a monarchy ruled by a single family since itsindependence in 1971. "This nation, like my small state, has alwaysplayed a large role in advancing participatory democracy, civildiscourse, and stable commerce," Shays told a well-heeled audienceof Qatari politicians and businessmen over lunch.

Shays has been a strong advocate for public-disclosure rules overthe years. "As public servants, we have a responsibility to upholdthe ethics process, not weaken it," he told The Houston Chroniclein 2005, objecting to an effort to defang House ethics rules in thewake of revelations about Tom DeLay's overseas travels and ties toAbramoff. Those travel rules require members of Congress to fileforms revealing all travel expenses paid by outside sources. But,despite his record of pushing for meticulous record-keeping,Shays's privately sponsored trip to Qatar was notably absent fromhis own annual federal financial disclosure form, filed in May2004, in violation of House rules. Nor did he submit an amendmentdisclosing the sponsor of his Qatar trip until confronted inmid-October 2006 by The New Republic with internal IslamicInstitute receipts for his plane tickets, which were provided by anArab American source upset with Shays's foreign policy positions.Given his reputation and perennially contested district, it was aparticularly foolhardy move.

Shays was one of a dozen members of Congress to attend theconference in Qatar. U.S. Central Command was headquartered out ofDoha, and the trip offered an opportunity for congressmen to visitit after the conference wound down, garnering favorable press backhome. Shays got official approval for the trip in March fromGovernment Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, who requested thatfederal funds for the trip "be made available." That made Shayscompletely authorized to travel on the government's dime--but hechose not to do so. Instead, when his aides filed his overseasitinerary with the Department of State, they noted that "Shays'airfare will be paid for by the Islamic Institute" and that the"Islamic Institute will pay for Rep. Shays' expenses while inDoha." Shays made that choice, says his aide Nick Palarino, "inorder to try to save the government some money."

According to an April 3, 2003, receipt, Shays and his wife werebooked by the Islamic Institute's travel agency, Skyway TravelInc., on first-class, round-trip tickets that were to take themfrom Washington to Frankfurt, Germany, and then on Qatar Airways toDoha, where they were to arrive on the evening of April 12. Shays'swife ultimately decided against the trip, which came just two daysafter U.S. forces took Baghdad. But Shays left the United States asplanned-- although, at the last minute, he chose not to use aportion of the Islamic Institute's post-conference ticketing thatwould have brought him via Jordan to Israel and the West Bank.Instead, he traveled on a U.S. government ticket to Kuwait and theninto Iraq, the part of the trip that his constituents hear muchmore about, before continuing on to Israel.

Shays filed a travel disclosure form in 2003 with the House Clerk,listing the Islamic Free Market Institute Foundation/University ofQatar as his sponsor for the trip and including such miraculousbargains as twelve days of lodging for just

$600. But forms filed with the House Clerk are difficult for thepublic to access, compared with personal financial disclosureforms, which watchdog groups post online. "You can only go to theHouse to look up these records," explains James Benton, director ofgovernment affairs at Common Cause. "You can't look them up online.If an outside group investigates these records, it requires a hugeresearch effort to find them."

And, despite the fact that Shays boasted to The Stamford Advocate in2003, "Every expense of my office is a matter of public record,"Shays never listed the Qatar trip on his personal financialdisclosure form. A first inquiry from this reporter in earlyOctober 2006 prompted his chief of staff, Betsy Hawkings, to find"a subcommittee trip that needed to be disclosed." (Subcommitteetrips are generally paid for by the federal government.) A quickletter of amendment for this trip, which had been partially fundedby a Norwegian source, was drafted on October 13, 2006. Askedspecifically about the Qatar conference, Hawkings said: "I was toldthat was a subcommittee trip." Pressed again, this time with theIslamic Institute's receipts, Hawkings admitted the truth: Shayshad flown to Qatar and back to the United States on the IslamicInstitute's dime, and his meals and hotel in Qatar had been paidfor by the Islamic Institute. Shays returned the unused portion ofhis tickets and those booked for his wife. "It was authorized asofficial travel," said Hawkings. "Just so there's no question, I'mgoing to file another amendment."

The danger of nondisclosure is that the true source of funding forforeign travel becomes untraceable. In Shays's case, knowing whosponsors his travel is especially pertinent; Shays chairs acongressional subcommittee overseeing U.S. national securitymatters. Just as Abramoff's nonprofit front groups routinely actedas thinly veiled conduits for money from his lobbying clients, theIslamic Institute's outlays for the representative's travels wererapidly reimbursed by the trip's real sponsor: Qatar. (In fact,Khaled Saffuri, the chairman of the Islamic Institute, had closeties to Abramoff and some of his foreign clients and had set up ashort-lived lobbying firm, the Lexington Group, with him in 2002.)A letter from Saffuri to His Excellency Badar Al Dafa, then theQatari ambassador to the United States, and a reply from theforeign ministry of Qatar shows that the Islamic Institute soughtand received

$143,150.93 from the foreign ministry days before Shays boarded theplane to Doha--and that the money was requested by Saffuri asreimbursement for, among other things, the congressman's travel.

Shays's aides sounded winded by this revelation. The Constitutionprohibits members of Congress from taking funds from foreigngovernments or their agents. "What they did to get reimbursedwouldn't be anything we had any knowledge of," said Hawkings.Republicans have frequently seemed wary of getting too close toQatar, the sponsor of Al Jazeera and an increasingly importantadvocate for the Palestinian side of the Arab-Israeli conflict.When Abramoff tried to help Saffuri get the foreign minister ofQatar a meeting with Karl Rove in 2001, according to recentlyreleased e-mails, Rove nixed the idea. Other Republicans have beensimilarly cautious about their dealings with Arab states, andHawkings eagerly pointed to Shays's "speech criticizing Wahabbism,given in Qatar," to prove that he's no softie when it comes to thewar on terrorism. But perhaps the best way for Shays to have donethat would have been to disclose his free stay at the DohaRitz-Carlton.

By garance franke-ruta