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Tax-law originators soaked taxpayers with Barbados fling

Published Oct. 18, 2005

The title of chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee does not do justice to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, hero of the soak-the-rich Democrats. Perhaps madam would be more fitting. Thanks to some fine reporting and secret camera work by the ABC News program Prime Time, we have seen Rosty and some of his Ways and Means colleagues _ Democrats and Republicans _ soaking up sun, soaking up rum, soaking up favors from lobbyists and, of course, soaking the taxpayers during a "working" trip to Barbados last spring.

Ways and Means is where tax law originates. The committee has its ways of delivering favors if the lobbyists have the means to make it worthwhile. It is, of course, not the only congressional committee that some have compared unfavorably to the Chicken Ranch that once operated in Texas.

ABC aired the film of our lawmakers at work on a resort island last Thursday, in the final days of the budget warfare on Capitol Hill where some of these same Barbados Democrats were at fever pitch in denouncing the Republicans as the party of the rich and privileged.

Soaking the rich with new taxes seemed to be the last thing on the minds of Rosty and his gang when they ordered up an Air Force jet to fly 33 lawmakers, wives and aides on a 12-day trip that included stops in Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica.

The committee had announced that the purpose of the trip was to update lawmakers on trade and economic issues in the hemisphere. Perhaps through some oversight, nobody bothered to invite Rep. Sam Gibbons, the Tampa Democrat who is chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on trade.

ABC's camera crew (they posed as tourists with camcorders) caught the congressmen in action on Easter weekend in Barbados, where lobbyists for the insurance, computer and fragrance industries just happened to be vacationing. Imagine the lobbyists running into Ways and Means members on a resort island so far from Washington. Small world, isn't it?

The television report said the lawmakers spent about seven hours in official meetings on Barbados. The rest of their time was devoted to swimming, sunbathing, dining, jet skiing, tennis, golf and a little game of touch football on the beach with the lobbyists.

One of the lobbyists was a former Georgia congressman, Dawson Mathis, who represents major insurance companies in the backroom dealing that is an accepted way of doing the public's business on Capitol Hill. Dawson, his stomach hanging over his swimsuit and a stubby cigar in his mouth, was shown peeling bills from a roll of money to pay for the jet skis the soak-the-rich lawmakers were riding across the waves. The lobbyists also paid for dinners and receptions for the group.

As generous as the lobbyists were, it wasn't enough to spare the taxpayers from getting stuck with a hefty tab. The ABC report said each member billed the government $1,176 in per-diem expenses for their stay at the Paradise Village and Beach Club. It also estimated that the Barbados leg of the trip alone, counting the Air Force jet and per-diem expenses, cost taxpayers $42,000. It's not clear whether this figure included the lawmakers' golf green fees, which were billed to the U.S. Embassy.

Prime Time co-anchor Sam Donaldson, who used to shout questions at presidents, ambushed Democratic Reps. Thomas Downey of New York and Marty Russo of Illinois recently and demanded to know if there was any connection between their good times on Barbados with insurance and computer lobbyists and the tax bills they later introduced to benefit both industries. Absolutely not, the lawmakers insisted.

Will Sam's manners never improve? He is so crass about these things.

Russo told the Washington Post on Friday that he had introduced a bill to help the U.S. computer industry to become more competitive in the world. The computer lobbyist who helped entertain the lawmakers in Barbados was Robert Macari, a former Russo congressional aide. "Bob Macari's been my closest friend for 25 years," said Russo. "He was there with his family for vacation."

Downey made only the Barbados leg of the trip. He, of course, probably had no idea he would run into an old personal friend _ Vincent P. Reusing, a lobbyist for Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Downey permitted Reusing to buy him dinner one night.

Rep. Raymond J. McGrath, R-N.Y., told his hometown paper, Newsday, that he was uncomfortable in the presence of the lobbyists. "I told the chairman (Rostenkowski) that I didn't think it looked good to have these guys there and that they should leave," McGrath was quoted as saying.

Rosty is not the kind to shoo lobbyists away. He is the perfect guest.

Some of the other Ways and Means members on the trip included Fortney "Pete" Stark, D-Calif., Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., Richard T. Schulze, R-Pa., and Barbara B. Kennelly, D-Conn.

It's also worth noting that the insurance lobbyist Mathis and E. Edward Kavanaugh sponsored a reception for the lawmakers during the Barbados stop. Kavanaugh is president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association.

I doubt that even Kavanaugh's best products could improve the smell of the Ways and Means fling on Barbados.