WASHINGTON -- New revelations about a 2011 congressional trip to Israel have prompted one Midwestern politician's apology and reminded San Joaquin Valley lawmakers that travel can be costly.
Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder, a conservative freshman from eastern Kansas, offered a written apology for "any embarrassment" he caused after his acknowledgment that he had jumped "without a swimsuit" into the fresh-water Sea of Galilee last year. Several of his House colleagues on the same trip also swam, albeit properly clothed, including Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.
"My wife and I were lucky to have the chance to swim in the Sea of Galilee in a completely appropriate manner, something we had planned ahead of time," Denham said in a statement late Monday.
Swimming, even overseas, usually isn't enough to incite a political tempest. Yoder's brief disrobing and a subsequent FBI inquiry first reported in the Politico newspaper, however, refocused a spotlight on the sensitive topic of congressional travel.
Denham and his wife, Sonia, like Kevin and Brooke Yoder, were part of a large delegation traveling in August 2011 courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation. The group reported paying $20,227.46 for the Denhams to participate in the eight-day trip, which included a number of meetings with Israeli officials, as well as visits to holy sites.
"I am honored to have had the chance to participate in this trip and look forward to continuing to work with AIEF on their important issues," Denham said.
Politico, which covers politics and Capitol Hill, reported that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., rebuked participants after the Aug. 18, 2011, incident in which upward of 20 lawmakers, during evening festivities, reportedly splashed in the water.
"Twelve months ago, (Cantor) dealt with this immediately and effectively to ensure such activities would not take place in the future," Cantor's deputy chief of staff, Doug Heye, said in a statement. He said that a congressional aide also answered some FBI questions about the episode.
Heye once worked for former Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, whose political career was undermined in 2006 in part by questions about family travel within the United States. Heye's assurances Monday did not quiet Democrats, who seized on the Israel trip as a political gift.
"This looks more like a scene out of 'Animal House' than a delegation of members of Congress representing America in Israel," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Jesse Ferguson said in a statement Monday. "What other inappropriate, embarrassing behavior have Republican members of Congress been engaged in that Republican leaders are keeping under wraps?"
Democrat Jose Hernandez, Denham's congressional opponent, added Monday that the congressman "owes his constituents an apology" for what happened in Israel.
Affiliated with AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Israel Education Foundation pays for more congressional travel than almost any other private organization, according to data compiled by Legistorm, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for public documents and other data about Congress. In the past four years, records show, Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, among many others, have participated in similar privately funded Israel trips.
Many other private groups, likewise, sponsor congressional travel, as do congressional committees and leaders of the House and Senate.
Shortly before he announced his resignation last week, for instance, then-Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, returned from a congressional trip to Europe, in the company of several other lame-duck members of Congress.
Travel must be reported
Lawmakers are allowed to accept paid travel by private groups under certain conditions, according to House ethics rules. Privately funded and congressional-sponsored travel must be reported, although there is a lag time between the event and the disclosure.
Late last year, Denham joined an official trip to Afghanistan, Turkey and Germany. About the same time, Nunes was jetting to Europe, according to travel records. But because the trip was for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the exact locations were not publicly revealed.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-0006.