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Gutierrez, Rush Plead Ignorance Of Travel Rules

By Rudolph Bush

May 20, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CHICAGO TRIBUNE. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON -- Reps. Bobby Rush and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois struggled this week to explain why they have failed for years to file disclosures of privately sponsored trips, as required under House rules.

The two Chicago Democrats, each of whom has served 12 years, said in separate interviews that they simply were unaware that the House requires timely, detailed explanations of all members' privately sponsored trips.

The fact that they didn't file for a number of years and don't remember receiving reminders of the rule raises questions about the House's internal enforcement and the seriousness with which the chamber takes its ethics rules, analysts said.

Both said they plan to quickly come into compliance with the rule, and Gutierrez already has completed filing travel reports for the last three years.

The other 19 members of the Illinois delegation were aware of the rule and regularly sent their travel disclosure forms, but Gutierrez's files from 1997 to 2005 were all but empty, while Rush's contained disclosures for several staff members but not for the South Side congressman himself. The House passed its travel disclosure rule in 1995.

Both members said they thought they were fulfilling the travel disclosure requirement by listing the trips on much less detailed personal financial disclosures that are filed annually with the House clerk.

Gutierrez put the onus on those under him.

"I'm very unhappy and upset that my senior staff never filed any disclosure forms," he said. "No one knew that was the rule. It's not a hard rule to follow."

Gutierrez said he discovered the filing failure himself after reading a news report in late April about another lawmaker's trips. Gutierrez said he wondered why he had never been asked for similar information, specifically regarding costs, about trips he took at the expense of foundations and other organizations.

Gutierrez said he further questioned why he had never received any reminder from the House clerk's office, which gathers the forms, or a reprimand from the House ethics committee, which oversees members' compliance with House rules.

"I can tell you categorically I never received anything," Gutierrez said.

Rush also didn't receive any warnings from the clerk or the ethics committee requesting the disclosures, he said.

Fred Wertheimer, of the watchdog group Democracy 21, said, "One of the problems here has been lax oversight of the rules. It's clear that one of the reforms that is essential is to strengthen the role of the [ethics] committee and the House in overseeing and enforcing its rules."

A spokesman for the committee did not return calls for comment, nor did a spokesman for the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the House clerk's office.

When Gutierrez discovered he wasn't in compliance, he notified the ethics committee, he said. He was then asked to explain his failure to comply and to file the disclosures. Thus far, he has made complete filings for the last three years and expects to file for all required years in the coming weeks.

They detail 16 trips, often with his wife, Soraida, and daughter, Jessica, to destinations such as Puerto Rico, Mexico and Israel. Unions and Hispanic groups sponsored most of the trips, with most of them costing more than $5,000.

"On the lighter side, maybe my political opponents should get their money back from their opposition researchers," Gutierrez joked, noting that his opponents have not raised questions about his failure to file the forms.

Rush took a somber tone about his failure to follow House rules, although he has yet to file travel disclosures for himself. He said he expects to make a complete filing by month's end.

"I really was under the impression my financial disclosures were exhaustive of the requirement," he said. "It will never ever happen again."

Rush said he would quickly accept any penalty, although it is unclear what if any penalty he might face.

He, too, said he wondered why he never received any notice that he wasn't in compliance.

Under legislation co-sponsored by fellow Illinois Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the performance of the House clerk would be more intensely scrutinized. The bill would also require members to file more extensive travel disclosures.

Though neither Rush nor Gutierrez received any reminders from the clerk, not knowing the rules isn't an excuse, said William Canfield, former general counsel for the Senate Ethics Committee.

"It's sad. You're supposed to know the rules if you are a member," he said.

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