Man selected to investigate Bennie Thompson went on one of the trips, doesn’t see a conflict

By Susan Crabtree
Posted: 07/06/09 08:05 PM [ET]
The chairman of a House ethics probe into a Caribbean conference attended by members of the Congressional Black Caucus is himself a CBC member who attended the same event in 2005.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the former judge chosen to chair the ethics probe, has vowed to lead a fair investigation into trips taken by CBC members to St. Maarten in 2008 and Antigua and Barbuda in 2007.

But the ethics watchdogs that have called for an investigation into whether corporations paid for the trips, which would violate House ethics rules, question whether a CBC member should be leading the official probe set up by the House ethics panel.

They also argue that it is improper for someone who attended the Caribbean conference to lead an investigation into whether it violated House rules.

“There is certainly an appearance problem — an appearance problem that in no way reflects on the integrity of Mr. Butterfield,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.

McGehee and other ethics experts argue that Butterfield’s 2005 trip is a conflict of interest because of relationships he may have developed with conference organizers and sponsors. Butterfield’s trip occurred before Democrats imposed new House rules on such trips.

Butterfield said he realized “you cannot completely divorce yourself from relationships.” He also said he would step down or recuse himself if he felt conflicted at any time during the investigation.

“I have a judicial background and always had the reputation of being fair — never had any criticism or complaints,” Butterfield said in a brief interview. “I’m confident that I can uphold the House rules and ensure that the investigation is even-handed.”

In 2005, Butterfield attended the same Caribbean conference his panel is now investigating — before House rules were changed. The conference was held at St. Thomas’s oceanfront Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort and Spa on Nov. 10-13 of that year.

“That trip was privately funded and approved by ethics,” Butterfield said in the e-mail.

Butterfield listed the New York Carib News as the sole sponsor of the event, even though corporations underwrote some of the costs.

On the travel disclosure forms, Butterfield lists the costs of the trip at $995. He said $695 of that was spent on lodging and $300 on a flight. He lists no costs for meals during the three-day stay.

It is unclear how much the resort charged for conference lodging because rates change from year to year and are lower than individual rates depending on the size of the conference and how many rooms are blocked. According to the hotel’s website, rates for November 2009 are $259 a night for a resort-view room, $293 for a bay view and $342 for a panoramic ocean view.

The Hill