Monday, June 20, 2005

Sen. Ted Stevens, the powerful Alaska Republican who led the congressional delegation to the posh Paris Air Show — which has been called “the biggest junket there is” — refuses to disclose how many members came along, how much it cost taxpayers, and offered few details about the event.

“We don’t talk about other members. They don’t talk about us,” Stevens spokeswoman Courtney Boone said, explaining that the secrecy surrounding the trip, which stretched from June 9 to 13, is due to “security reasons” because as the president pro tempore of the Senate, Mr. Stevens is third in line for the presidency. “It’s very unusual for us to comment on trips that Senator Stevens makes because they are confidential because he’s in the line of succession.”

The trip to Paris came on the heels of the ethics complaints filed against House Majority Leader Tom Delay, Texas Republican, for taking trips to Scotland and other exotic locales that were paid for by a lobbyist, which is against House rules.

An investigation by The Washington Times last month found that more than 200 lawmakers from both parties, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, have rushed to correct travel disclosure statements to comply with the rules.

Mr. Stevens’ trip was a bipartisan affair paid for by Congress, ostensibly steering it clear of the lobbyist problems that other members have had.

Mrs. Boone would not disclose how many members went along on the trip.

A congressional source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the delegation included Sens. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican; Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican; and Rep. Jo Bonner, Alabama Republican.

“They’ve given me permission to say they were on the trip,” the spokeswoman said.

Congress and the Bush administration conducted a high-profile boycott of the Paris Air Show when it was last held in 2003, the summer when freedom fries were placed on the congressional menu to protest France’s opposition to the Iraq war.

No congressional delegation attended that show, which is considered the greatest gathering of military and civilian aviation leaders, and the Pentagon sent no one higher than the rank of colonel — a move considered a snub by the French.

All that has changed, however, with both Congress and the Bush administration rekindling relations with France. “President Bush requested that Senator Stevens lead a delegation on his behalf,” Mrs. Boone said. “Senator Stevens believes it was a good way to rebuild the relationship between France and the U.S.”

Asked about what he learned at the show, Mr. Sessions last week declined to elaborate, saying only that he was happy to go because “I’d never gone to the air show before.”

But a spokesman for the senator said he was there to lobby executives of EADS, a Paris-based aeronautical firm. Mobile, Ala., is in competition with three other U.S. cities wooing EADS to build a new plant that would produce tanker planes for the U.S. Air Force.

“Senator Sessions went over there for that specific reason,” Sessions spokesman Michael Brumas said.

Aside from the official business conducted, the Paris Air Show has long been seen as one of the best “information-gathering” trips a member of Congress can take. “It’s the biggest junket there is,” said one Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Stevens, chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, has taken the lead on many congressional delegations to the Paris Air Show. Mrs. Boone said Mr. Stevens bowed out of organizational duties in 2003 because he planned to attend a family member’s graduation from Stanford University, not because of hard feelings toward France.

For years, attendance at the air show — which features displays of U.S. military air superiority by day and hobnobbing with leaders of the airplane industry at night — has long been among the favorite perks of congressional membership.

This year, the Pentagon sent about 125 officers, including several one-, two-, and three-star generals. The Bush administration also sent along NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin and Federal Aviation Administration head Marion C. Blakey.

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