Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, on Wednesday downplayed his involvement with a group that sent him to New Zealand and Japan in recent years, possibly in violation of U.S. tax law.
The International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources paid more than $23,000 for the trips in 2000 and 2002, but apparently didn’t pay taxes on the trips as required by law, according to a report Tuesday by the Center for Public Integrity.
Pombo said he “had no idea” what tax laws governed the group and had not been very involved in the planning.
“Realistically, I don’t go on a lot of trips,” Pombo said.
The foundation is not allowed to pay for international travel by government officials, such as Pombo, under the section of the tax code that governs the group, according to an Internal Revenue Service summary of nonprofit tax law.
A representative from the group was not available to comment on this story.
The group paid $10,120 to send Pombo and his wife, Annette, to Nelson, New Zealand, from Nov. 15 to Nov. 20, 2000, and $13,190 to send the congressman and a staff member to Shimonoseki, Japan, from May 16 to May 21, 2002, according to the report.
The trips are considered “self-dealing,” and there should have been a 5 percent tax paid on the costs of the trip, according to the IRS document, Tax Information for Private Foundations and Foundation Managers.
Furthermore, the document says Pombo or the group could be liable for a penalty of 200 percent of the amount involved if the tax was not paid.
The document — a link to which was provided in the center’s report — says “the tax will be imposed only if the government official knows that the act is an act of self dealing.” It spells out several ways to define “knowing,” including if “the person negligently fails to make reasonable attempts to learn whether the transaction is an act of self dealing.”
Pombo said the particular law was too obscure.
“I have never heard of (it) before,” he said. “No other congressman I’ve talked to has ever heard of it before.”
Pombo’s trips were the only international travel for lawmakers paid for by the foundation and the only privately funded international trips he took, according to a database search on Political Money Line, a Web site that tracks money in politics.
Democrats jumped on the report and continued their attempts to tie Pombo to a “culture of corruption” in Washington, D.C.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has targeted Pombo for defeat next year, tried to tie the years-old trips to Pombo’s support Tuesday of tribal whaling rights and of limits to lawsuits against the restaurant industry.
The House Resources Committee, which Pombo chairs, passed a nonbinding resolution he sponsored urging the Bush administration to uphold whaling rights guaranteed to the Makah Tribe under an 1855 treaty with the federal government. The tribe has been blocked in its attempts to hunt off the coast of Washington state as it attempts to get a waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which outlaws whaling in the United States.
Pombo also voted for the so-called “cheeseburger bill,” which prevents lawsuits that blame restaurants for causing individuals’ obesity. The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act passed 300-120.
Donors in the food and whaling industries — including the owner of the Red Lobster and Oliver Garden restaurant chains and the Japan Whaling Association — support the group that funded Pombo’s trips, according to the report.
“While Congressman Pombo is globe-trotting on the special interests’ frequent flyer miles and voting for ‘cheeseburger’ giveaways, California families are wondering why the values of the special interests are being represented in Congress before their own,” Bill Burton, the DCCC’s communications director, said in a prepared statement.
Pombo denied any connection.
“That’s the most absurd stretch I’ve heard in my life,” he said. “The whaling conference (in Japan) was three or four years ago. Knowing that someday I’d be chairman of the committee and I’d be able to introduce something three or four years later, that’s crazy.”
At the Japanese conference, Pombo chaired a meeting of the Sustainable Use Parliamentarians Union, an offshoot of the IFCNR that was formed in 2000. Pombo said he had been nothing more than a figurehead and had performed no substantial duties with the group.
“It was just an honorary title,” he said. “I never acted as chairman.”
Japanese lawmakers at the same conference sought to lift a global moratorium on commercial whaling and counted Pombo as a supporter, according to a May 3, 2002, article from Japan’s Asahi News Service.
“Pombo’s philosophy of sustainable use of wildlife on a scientific basis meets our cause on whaling,” said Shunichi Suzuki, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party and a leading member of SUPU Japan, according to the article.
Pombo also attacked the Center for Public Integrity, claiming the organization — which has won numerous journalism awards from groups such as Investigative Reporters and Editors — is little more than a front for an elaborate effort orchestrated by wealthy liberals to defeat him next year. The group also published articles critical of President Bill Clinton when he was in office.
“The so-called Center for Public Integrity is a left-leaning group,” said Pombo, whose assertion was based on the fact that some of the center’s backers also are supported by environmental groups and other liberal causes.
Pombo said that he has asked his accountant to see whether he owes back-taxes to the IRS and that he will pay whatever restitution he might owe. But, he said, he’s still unsure whether any laws have been violated.
“Does this apply to me? If so, what do I owe?” Pombo said. “I’ve talked to the attorneys here; nobody’s ever heard of this before.”