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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida Reps. Frankel, Murphy, Garcia join trip to Israel that raises questions of influence



Florida Reps. Lois Frankel, Patrick Murphy and Joe Garcia are in Israel for the week along with more than 30 other Democratic House members -- trips paid for by an arm of a powerful lobbying group.

Next week, freshmen Republicans head off on the same trip , paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, which Frankel in a news release described as an "independent, nonprofit charitable organization."

It is, in fact, an arm of the lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which gets around restrictions on privately paid travel by using the educational arm, an arrangement government watchdogs have criticized. One of the big AIEF boosters: Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who poured millions into campaigns to defeat President Obama last year.

In 2012, Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, caused a scandal after it was revealed the FBI had investigated him skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee during a trip the year before. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, jumped into the water with his daughter, but they were clothed.

Murphy and Frankel disclosed they were going, with Garcia doing so Wednesday morning.  But AIPAC refused to provide the full list of lawmakers who made the trip, presumably along with family members. An AIPAC spokesman referred questions to the office of Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. But a Hoyer spokeswoman also would not provide names and referred a reporter back to AIPAC.

The House six years ago banned lobbying groups from paying for trips but a loophole allowed educational foundations to pick up the tab, estimated at $10,000 per person.

"The purpose of the 2007 travel restrictions was to remove these types of sponsored trips. Most of these trips tend to be nothing but an extension of lobbying,” Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen told the Hill newspaper in 2011. But “when it came to negotiating the travel rules regarding privately funding trips, a huge gaping loophole was written in to exempt nonprofits. ... I call it the ‘AIPAC loophole.’”

Frankel cast it as anything but a junket. “This trip to Israel comes at an important time with the U.S. leading peace negotiations and instability threatening the Middle East," she said in a  release. "Together we will reaffirm our commitment and support to Israel, our most important partner in this region.”

She said the delegation will meet with key leaders — both Israelis and Palestinians — to gain insight on issues of security, diplomacy, defense cooperation and more.

From her release:

"This rigorous trip will feature meetings and briefings with high-level Israeli and Palestinian government officials including Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, military leaders, defense and economic experts. The Members of Congress will receive updates on the peace process, Israel’s security situation and economic trends in the region and opportunities for economic and technological cooperation with the Israeli business community and the US.

"The group will also visit an Iron Dome battery and meet with Israeli Defense Force soldiers. Frankel has advocated for more funding for Israel’s Iron Dome and Arrow missile defense systems. Frankel believes defending Israel in the interest of our national security and last week offered an amendment to the House Defense appropriations bill that would add investments to Israel’s Iron Dome and Arrow missile defense systems. Frankel’s amendment proposed investing an additional $20 million in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and $5 million for their Arrow defense system to bolster protection against short and long-range missile attacks."

[Last modified: Wednesday, August 7, 2013 10:59am]


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