Tuesday, April 5, 2005

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi helped secure $3 million last year for a nonprofit transportation-research organization whose president gave money to her political action committee as the group was paying for a European trip for one of her policy advisers.

Transportation adviser Lara Levison’s nine-day, $4,475 trip to Spain and Germany last April to learn about hydrogen-fuel cells for buses was primarily paid for by WestStart-CALSTART.

But just days before the trip, WestStart-CALSTART announced that Mrs. Pelosi had helped the nonprofit group secure $1 million from the Federal Transit Administration for a bus rapid-transit program. A month after the Levison trip, the group sent out a press release thanking her for a $2 million grant for a fuel-cell program.

According to campaign records, WestStart-CALSTART Chief Executive Officer John R. Boesel also gave $1,000 to one of Mrs. Pelosi’s political action committees in 2003 and $1,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Both Mr. Boesel and Mrs. Pelosi’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Crider, said there is no link between the staffer’s trip and the grants.

“This trip was completely within the House rules. The two projects were long-standing projects we’ve worked on,” Ms. Crider said.

Both she and Mr. Boesel said Republican staffers also were on the European trip.

Mr. Boesel said Mrs. Pelosi has supported his projects for more than a decade, adding that the programs have drawn support from both parties and that his political donations have gone to both parties.

But the trip is raising questions from some Republicans, who say the California Democrat and some ethics-watchdog groups are being hypocritical when they criticize House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on ethics charges.

“Given the actions of the minority leader vis-a-vis the majority leader and other Republicans, I’m having a little trouble finding where the outrage is coming from these groups that continue to pound on Republican members,” a senior Republican lawmaker said on the condition of anonymity.

The lawmaker said nothing distinguished Mrs. Pelosi’s actions from those of Mr. DeLay and other Republicans that she has criticized. He also said the questions about Mrs. Pelosi rise to the point of an ethics complaint.

“I think the minority leader ought to be subject to the same type of scrutiny as other members,” he said.

Campaign-watchdog groups said it doesn’t appear that Mrs. Pelosi or her staff member broke any rules, but said the timing looks bad.

“Anytime a member of their staff gets trips to Europe, it raises questions,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “Add to it the idea that the organization is thanking Pelosi, it just adds to it.”

Ken Boehm, chairman of the conservative National Legal and Policy Center, which has challenged Mrs. Pelosi’s campaign fundraising in the past, said the trip looks shady.

“I think it looks like she’s doing legislative favors for donors, because she is,” he said.

Mr. Boehm said Mrs. Pelosi’s actions are starting to look like a pattern. He has questioned Mrs. Pelosi’s earmark in early 2003 of $1 million to a University of San Francisco research center named after Leo T. McCarthy, who has been treasurer of her political action committees.

The questions about Mrs. Pelosi come as Republicans have vowed to fight back against what they think is a coordinated attack by her and allied groups on Mr. DeLay.

The Texan was admonished three times by the House ethics committee last year, and news reports have raised more questions this year, including about a 2001 trip paid for by a registered foreign agent. Mrs. Pelosi later had a staff member take a trip paid for by the same group.

In this newest charge, Ms. Levison’s trip, from April 11 to 19, 2004, took her from Washington to Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, then to Heidelberg and Stuttgart in Germany.

Total transportation was $2,200, lodging cost $1,400 and meals cost $875, according to the disclosure form, which erroneously lists Mrs. Pelosi as making the trip.

Ms. Levison paid for two weekend days of the trip herself — a fact that Ms. Crider said shows the rest of the trip was for legitimate business purposes.

“It’s within the House rules that if you do anything that’s not trip-related, that is personal, you pay for it. And we fully complied. It’s actually counter to the argument that she was there for fun,” Ms. Crider said.

She also chided Republicans for not making their charges against Mrs. Pelosi publicly.

“Republicans threaten and threaten and threaten, but aren’t willing to use their name to stand up and make the case,” she said.

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