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D'Amato junket lands lawmaker in trouble

ALBANY -- Rep. Bill Owens says he'll pay back more than $22,000 to the sponsor of a trip he and his wife took to Taiwan.

The news organization ProPublica reported that Owens' December trip was organized by a lobbying firm founded by former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Members of Congress can't take officially connected travel organized by lobbyists.

Owens (D-Plattsburgh) got approval for the trip, which he said was related to job creation, and listed the Chinese Culture University as the sponsor.

He said he didn't know that contact with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office affected the trip's permissibility. D'Amato's firm lobbies for that office.

Owens says he followed the rules, but in "an abundance of caution," will use personal funds to pay back the $22,132 spent on the trip.

According to ProPublica, Owens and his wife, Jane, took a first-class trip to Taiwan two days after Christmas last year.

They roomed at $500-a-night luxury hotels and enjoyed fine meals between meetings with Taiwanese officials and a day trip to Taipei's famed National Palace Museum.

Although Owens filed a travel disclosure with the House Ethics Committee that identifies the trip's sponsor as the Culture University, email messages and other documents reviewed by ProPublica show that lobbyists from Park Strategies had invited Owens on the trip and spent four months organizing it.

A rule passed by Congress after the Jack Abramoff scandal states: "Member and staff participation in officially-connected travel that is in any way planned, organized, requested, or arranged by a lobbyist is prohibited."

Besides D'Amato, others involved in arranging the trip included two executives at his firm, John Zagame and Sean King, son of Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), according to ProPublica. The Park Strategies lobbyists are registered foreign agents for the government of Taiwan.

"Lobbyists are not supposed to be associated with this trip in any way -- they are not supposed to be organizing this or orchestrating it," Public Citizen's Craig Holman, who helped draft the post-Abramoff reforms, told ProPublica.

Both Park Strategies and Owens' spokesman told ProPublica they believe the trip complied with House rules.

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