Rep. Peter Roskam and his wife take pictures of their daughter’s classroom in Taiwan. This image was taken from video of the Roskams’ trip.
Updated: October 15, 2013 7:12AM
WASHINGTON — On May 13, 2011, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) was invited to visit Taiwan on a trip paid for by the Taiwan government.
If Roskam had gone alone to Taiwan, he may not be facing a House Ethics probe today over the $25,652 trip.
The invitation came from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the U.S., which functions as Taiwan’s de facto embassy here. Under House rules, a lawmaker can accept a trip financed by a foreign government under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA).
But Roskam wanted to bring his wife, Elizabeth, along to what would be his first trip to Taiwan. Their oldest daughter, Gracey, was teaching youngsters in Taiwan for the year. There is a YouTube video of the Roskams visiting Gracey’s Taiwan classroom — proud parents taking pictures.
Roskam was no stranger to TECRO. Another daughter would be spending three weeks during the summer of 2011 — when the trip was being planned — as a high school volunteer intern at TECRO, according to an interview Roskam gave to investigators.
House rules, however, do not allow a lawmaker to take along a family member under the MECEA provisions.
But all the expenses for the Roskams could be covered under another set of House rules allowing private sources to pay for a trip, provided all the requirements were met and the trip was pre-approved by the House Committee on Ethics.
Roskam’s ethical saga really begins at this point: where his Oct. 15-22, 2011, trip switched over from one bankrolled by TECRO to one financed by a private source — it turned out to be the Chinese Culture University in Taipei. That way both Roskams could get free travel.
On Thursday, the House Ethics Committee announced that it was extending its review of the Roskam Taiwan trip — putting the panel in the awkward (to say the least) position of investigating a trip it earlier had approved.
The matter was referred to the committee by the independent and nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which concluded earlier this year there was “substantial reason to believe” that Roskam accepted payment for the trip “from an impermissible source” — the Taiwan government, using the university as a stand-in.
Roskam took the unusual step of releasing in July — when the OCE inquiry became public — the OCE confidential report and other materials to buttress his argument that he was in the clear since the House Ethics Committee approved the trip on Sept. 30, 2011.
On Thursday, the House Ethics Committee released more documents, including a series of trip planning e-mail exchanges during 2011 between Roskam’s executive assistant and Gordon Ching-huei Yang, a TECRO executive in the congressional liaison division.
Multiple e-mails detail how Yang orchestrated the smooth transition from TECRO — the impermissible source — to the permissible funder, the Chinese Culture University.
“I’ve got the new ethics form from the Chinese Culture University,” Yang e-mails Roskam’s staffer on Sept. 2, 2011. “I plan to stop by your office on Tuesday to deliver it to you.”
Yang was a very helpful attache. On Sept. 16 he e-mailed the Roskam staffer: “We could arrange Mr. and Mrs. Roskam to stop by and watch Gracey teach class. We could also arrange a dinner with the host family.”
Not at issue is the nature of the trip: Roskam’s schedule shows a series of meetings, conferences and briefings with officials. As for his university host — well, Roskam dropped by the campus on Oct. 17 for a visit of about three hours.
Roskam’s executive assistant gave an Ethics Committee staffer Yang’s name when the panel had a query about the travel — and even sent over Yang’s contact info on Sept. 27, 2011.
Roskam told an OCE prober in his interview “he did not have a sense of who was paying for this trip.” Roskam was relying on the Ethics Committee guidance. Which is why it could be that nothing will come of this.
You may wonder why the OCE targeted Roskam. I have a pretty good guess. The OCE is interested in Chinese Cultural University-sponsored trips.
Earlier, the OCE probed a case involving Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.), following a report published in ProPublica about a trip Owens and his wife took to Taiwan after “ostensibly” being invited by the Chinese Cultural University. ProPublica ran the Owens story in May 2012. OCE started its Roskam preliminary review on Jan. 25, 2013.