WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a review of a 2008 trip Rep. Keith Ellison took to Saudi Arabia, the House Ethics Committee said the Minneapolis Democrat must report the cost of the two-week journey sponsored by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, according to a letter from the panel. Since the committee changed its original guidance on the disclosure, it stressed that Ellison had acted properly.
Ellison has since reported that the travel expenses were $13,350.
The discussion over whether Ellison should have originally disclosed the cost of the pilgrimage to Mecca rose to the fore after the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran stories this summer questioning why the journey had been filed under a House rule that does not require cost accounting instead of as a gift, which mandates full financial disclosure.
The articles raised questions about privately funded trips and the Muslim Society of Minnesota’s financial connections to a charter school that has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for allegedly violating the church and state separation that governs public schools.
But Ellison defended his original filing Thursday, saying that the ethics panel told him what rule to file under and that he had complied.
“I am doing the best I can to be compliant with these rules,” Ellison said in an interview with MinnPost. “I was then, I am now.”
The letter that the Ethics Committee wrote to Ellison after its review of his trip said the panel determined that Ellison had “disclosed the trip properly… pursuant to the guidance of the staff on the Standards Committee.”
The panel went on to say that at the time Ellison made the request for approval, he had anticipated that he might also have meetings of an official nature in addition to his private itinerary.
Therefore, the panel advised him to file his trip under a rule which covers trips that are not specifically related to congressional duties, but are not just for personal benefit. This rule [PDF] does not require lawmakers to disclose the cost of their travels.
The committee revisited the trip again “as part of its statutorily-mandated review of all Financial Disclosure Statements filed each year.”
At that time, Ellison’s staff reported that Ellison had decided not to add any official activity to his trip and that the journey had been purely personal.
Ellison said that he had originally thought it was possible he might meet with government officials in Saudi Arabia on government business.
In the end, however, that “just didn’t happen because it wasn’t the right time and place,” said Ellison.
Given that information, the committee decided that Ellison should instead file his trip as a gift, which does require financial disclosure.
“We consider this change to be merely a minor, technical correction, and we concur that you [Ellison] followed proper procedures and committee guidance,” the committee stated.
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.