by Tom Loftus, Louisville Courier Journal –
FRANKFORT, Ky. — A Kentucky lawmaker says he complied with “the letter and the spirit” of the state’s ethics code in taking a four-day trip to England that’s now at the heart of an FBI investigation that has led to the resignation of Ohio’s House speaker.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said the trip, which was paid for by a Republican group called GOPAC Education Fund and included lawmakers from other states, was a valuable educational experience. He emphasized that no taxpayer dollars were spent on the trip.
He added that he has never been contacted by the FBI about the trip.
According to reports in The Cincinnati Enquirer, the late August trip to London is at the center of an FBI probe into former Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger’s lavish lifestyle and frequent trips paid for by outside groups or campaign donors that often include payday lending lobbyists.
Rosenberger says he has done nothing illegal or unethical, but he resigned as Ohio’s House speaker on April 12.
The trip to London included lobbyists from other states who represent the payday lending industry. Thayer said no Kentucky lobbyists were on the trip.
“I’m on the GOPAC advisory board … I was transparent about the trip. I posted photos about my London trip on social media,” Thayer said. “… I can’t help it that Cliff Rosenberger is under investigation from the FBI.”
The GOPAC Education Fund is the education and training program of Arlington, Virginia-based GOPAC Inc., which has an election program that raises and spends money to elect Republicans to state and local office.
According to GOPAC Executive Director Jessica Curtis, the purpose of the Aug. 28-31 trip to London was “to educate participants on U.S./U.K. trade opportunities, foster the exchange of ideas with Members of Parliament and facilitate the study of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.”
The home base for the junket was the five-star Conrad London St. James hotel. And the itinerary, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, included a tour of parliament, dinner with two members of parliament, lunch with Churchill’s granddaughter, a ride on the London Eye (an enclosed super-sized Ferris wheel with views of the city), and a bus tour complete with champagne.
The Enquirer reported that corporate sponsors helped fund the trip through payments of $25,000 each – contributions that allowed their lobbyists to rub shoulders with the legislative leaders.
Besides Thayer and Rosenberger, GOPAC said other state legislators on the trip were Wisconsin Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos, Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson, and Ohio Rep. Nathan Manning.
But Curtis declined to disclose the names of the sponsors, saying the GOPAC Education Fund is organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service code and not required to disclose its donors.
The code of ethics for Kentucky lawmakers allows lawmakers to accept such free travel and accommodations if it is not paid for by Kentucky lobbyists or employers of lobbyists. To take such a trip, the code requires a senator to get advance permission from the Senate president. A state representative would have to get approval from the House speaker.
John Schaaf, executive director of the Legislative Ethics Commission, said the ethics code “does not prohibit contributions from lobbying businesses to third party groups that don’t lobby, such as nonprofits or charities. Since the ethics law strictly applies to businesses and people who lobby, legislators who have approval from their presiding officer can take trips sponsored by groups that don’t lobby, including nonprofits or charities that may receive contributions from businesses that lobby.”
Thayer referred questions about who funded the trip to Curtis. But he said he “absolutely” found the trip useful to his work as a Kentucky legislator.
He cited “our meeting with the two members of parliament, touring the houses of parliament, meeting with Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, touring Winston Churchill’s war room, learning about the trade between England and the United States.”
Thayer said he has always been a supporter of the payday lending industry – including a bill the industry sought in the 2018 session but did not move out of committee. But Thayer said he had no conversations about payday lending or any policy issues with any lobbyists on the trip – only “conversations of a social nature with government affairs people from other states.”
Thayer noted that just last month he also attended GOPAC’s annual legislative leaders’ forum in New York.
“All of it was very, very informative,” Thayer said. “And if they do another overseas trip and they invite me, I plan to go again.”
An initial records request to the Legislative Research Commission seeking all requests made by legislators in 2017 to the Senate president or House speaker to take out-of-state trips, produced many such requests from lawmakers – but none from Thayer for the London trip.
LRC General Counsel Greg Woosley said the omission was because the process used to locate such records goes through the agency’s business office. But that process did not produce records of a legislator travel request – such as Thayer’s – where no expenses were paid by the state.
But Insider Louisville’s Joe Sonka, who first reported that Thayer was on the London trip, later obtained a copy of Thayer’s request to take the trip from the Senate leadership office and posted it on his Twitter account.
A follow-up records request by Courier Journal to LRC produced Thayer’s request of May 16, 2017, to take the trip, which was approved two days later by Senate President Robert Stivers.
Thayer said his request is an open record that he told Senate staff to release to reporters who requested it and did not know why it was not among the records supplied by LRC to Courier Journal’s initial request. “I’ve never tried to hide anything,” Thayer said.
GOPAC Education Fund is organized separately from GOPAC’s election activities, which are organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Service Code. The election side was very active in buying advertising in 2016 to help Republicans gain control of the Kentucky House for the first time in nearly 100 years.