BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Members of Congress representing Western New York and their staff members went on two dozen privately-paid trips costing more than $80,000 since 2010, according to a 2 On Your Side analysis of federal ethics disclosure forms.
The trips are usually paid by non-profits, allowing members and their staff to bypass ethics rules that ban lobbyists from providing such gifts. Many trips were overseas to exotic locations, and lawmakers are usually allowed to take a spouse or other relatives.
Reps. Chris Collins, Tom Reed and Louise Slaughter took trips themselves, while Reed, Slaughter, Senator Charles Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins all approved trips for staff members.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was the only federal lawmaker representing this area who did not go on any privately-paid trips or allow her staff to go.
"We have had a policy against them since her first days in the House," her chief of staff told 2 On Your Side.
The others do not.
The priciest trips were taken by Reps. Reed and Collins. The American Israel Education Foundation, AIEF, paid to send them each to Israel for week-long trips. Reed went in 2011, Collins earlier this year.
In each case, the lawmakers took a relative, flew in business class, and stayed in some of the nicest hotels in the country. The tabs for their meals were right around $2,000. In all, Collins' trip cost $18,436.52, while the group paid $21,279.06 for Reed's trip.
Dr. Craig Holman with the government watchdog group Public Citizen said the trips are designed to influence and lobby members of Congress.
"These types of travel junkets have long been one of the favorite means for special interests and lobbyists to use to try to influence members of Congress and peddle their wares on Capitol Hill," Dr. Holman said.
While AIEF is a non-profit, it is simply the charity wing of the AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC is the largest pro-Israel lobby in America.
AIPAC and its lobbyists are prohibited from giving lawmakers or staff members gifts, including trips. So the group's charity wing does it for them.
"(The ethics committees) have allowed a lobbying organization -- any lobbying entity -- to set up a 501(c)3, a charity wing even just on paper," Dr. Holman said. "And if that (c)3 itself doesn't employ lobbyists, then it can pay for these congressional travel junkets."
Neither Congressman Reed nor Congressman Collins would speak with 2 On Your Side either on camera or by phone. They each emailed statements through their spokespeople.
"Congressman Collins' trip – vetted and approved by the House Ethics Committee – was paid for exclusively by private donations at zero expense to taxpayers," Collins Spokesperson Grant Loomis said by email. "The bipartisan effort involves both Democrats and Republicans and is critical to educating Members of Congress on the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and protecting American interests in the Middle East."
Congressman Reed's spokesperson, Elizabeth Shaffer, said, in part, "Congressman Reed's trip to Israel ... was paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), which is privately funded by American citizens – no taxpayer dollars are involved."
The emailed statement went on to say, "The delegation met with government and military leaders in Israel to gain insight into the region and highlight the strategic partnership between the United States and Israel."
Congressman Collins went on a second trip paid by an outside group. The Heritage Foundation picked up the tab for a 3-day conference in Baltimore in February 2013. It was attended by Collins and many other members of the Republican caucus.
2 On Your Side previously reported Collins' wife Mary attended that trip with him. The pre-approval disclosure forms filed with the House Ethics Committee said she would be accompanying him. However, she ended up not going.
Collins Baltimore' trip cost the conservative group $1,052.00, according to ethics disclosures.
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter also went on an all-expense-paid trip. She flew with her husband to Boston in 2010 to attend an event hosted and paid by the Tobin Project, which spent $890.00 total on Slaughter's trip.
The other 20 trips paid by outside groups were for staffers, in many cases senior advisers to our members of Congress.
Congressman Reed approved the most out of our delegation.
His staff members went to Israel, Maryland, Colorado, Virginia, Las Vegas, Ohio, and Texas. The grand total on these trips was $13,217.79.
"Educational trips taken by congressional staff are organized in full compliance with all rules and disclosure regulations of the House Committee on Ethics – with no taxpayer dollars used," the spokesperson wrote to 2 On Your Side. "The trips serve as ongoing education for staff in their office role to better serve constituents and help shape informed policy."
Tyler Stapleton, a staff with Congressman Brian Higgins' office, went on two overseas trips. The Turkish Coalition of America paid for him to go to Istanbul in February of this year. The grand total was $5,288.82. He also went on a free trip to Israel. AIEF paid $6,664.52 for that trip.
While Senator Charles Schumer hasn't been on any privately-paid trips dating back to 2010, his staff members have been on plenty, including treks to Haiti, Japan and Macedonia, as well as U.S. destinations of Miami, Maryland, Philadelphia, and New York City. In all, Schumer's staffers got $13,990.59 worth of trips, all paid by outside groups.
Congressman Slaughter also approved one trip for a staffer. Stefanie Winzeler went to Las Cruces, New Mexico to tour a facility owned by Sapphire Energy, Inc. That privately-held company paid $1,048.00 for the trip.
Dr. Holman said in some cases the trips for staffers can be even more problematic than those for members of Congress.
"(Staffers) are even more prone to influence from these trips," he said, "because staffers don't get paid as much as members of Congress. They often don't have the same kind of resources."
In all, private groups have paid $81,867.30 since 2010 on trips for our members of Congress and their staff.
That pales in comparison to some other areas. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, has been on 22 trips since 2007. Fourteen of those trips were overseas, including stops in 11 different countries. The grand total spent by the outside groups was $205,241.04.
Rep. Schakowsky has previously told reporters that the groups are appropriate, because they're educational.
Dr. Holman doesn't buy that argument.
"As long as the people sponsoring these types of trips actually want something from Congress, you can count on it not being educational," Holman said. "This is lobbying. This is influence-peddling."
Holman is currently pushing to change the ethics rules once again. He wants all travel by outside groups to be banned.
"If the only way we can stop that is to provide for publicly-financed travel and ban this privately-sponsored travel all-together, that's where we should go," he said.
The changes can't come quickly enough. The Jack Abramoff ethics scandal nearly a decade ago caused a sharp drop in privately-paid travel due to changes to ethics laws. Now, the number of trips is back on the rise.
So far in 2013, members of Congress have been on 458 different trips for a total of $3,384,801.
"It only changes when we run into scandal," Holbrook concluded. "And we are now seeing a return to the level of abuse that we saw during the Jack Abramoff era, so a scandal is right around the corner."