BY LESLEY CLARK | Knight Ridder Newspapers
Rep. Charles Rangel, a frequent critic of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, met with Fidel Castro on a trip to the island in 2002, but only acknowledged that the Cuban government picked up part of the tab when a watchdog group began making recent inquiries.
The New York Democrat changed his travel disclosure form for the April 2002 trip and reimbursed the Cuban government and a New York grocery store owner $1,922 for his son’s expenses after the Center for Public Integrity raised questions about the trip. House ethics rules permit private sponsors of lawmakers’ trips to cover the cost of only one relative - in Rangel’s case, his wife Alma, who also went on the trip.
The government watchdog group, which Monday released an extensive review of congressional travel, noted that congressional travel disclosure forms “are supposed to make the sponsor and purpose of privately funded trips transparent to the public.’‘
But according to the group, Rangel initially listed a group that was conducting a bird study in Cuba at the time, the Minneapolis-based Sian Ka’an Conservation Foundation, as the sponsor of the trip. On an amended form - filed in April - Rangel added the Cuban government and grocery owner John Catsimatidis as sponsors.
Rangel’s chief of staff, George Dalley, told the center that Rangel and his staff did not know the Cuban government had paid for part of the trip until they were contacted by the group.
``The most important thing is that Rangel corrected the mistake he made,’’ Dalley told the group. Calls to the congressman’s office were not returned.
The report also suggests that Rangel may have violated another House ethics rule. His office did not say whether it had filed a required report that a foreign government paid for some of his trip.
Congressional trips to Cuba are fairly routine - but most are paid for by private groups looking to establish trade ties with the island.
The same report showed that another critic of the embargo, Massachusetts Democrat Rep. William Delahunt, went to Havana twice, courtesy of the Lexington Institute, a Washington area think tank that has organized trips to the island in the past.
Some Cuba observers, however, said they have wondered whether the Cuban government has paid some expenses in an effort to foster relationships with members of Congress, which in recent years has batted down efforts to relax the embargo that prevents most U.S. companies from doing business with Cuba.
``I have long suspected that the Cuban regime illegally finances and arranges travel and other activities for members of Congress,’’ said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who is a staunch defender of keeping economic sanctions against Castro in place.
A review of about 23,000 privately paid congressional trips from Jan. 1, 2000, through June 30, 2005, found no other reference to the Cuban government, according to the analysis of congressional travel reports compiled by the center, Medill News Service and American Public Media.
Philip Peters, who runs the Lexington Institute’s Cuba program, said he was entirely unfamiliar with the Cuban government financing trips. He said the institute raises its own money to travel.
``I’ve never heard that the Cuban government offered to pay,’’ Peters said. ``When you are there, you pay the going rate, there’s no discount.’‘
Rangel, who met with Castro as far back as 1988 as part of a congressional trip, reported the 2002 trip was for ``education and fact finding.’‘
According to the center, the group attended talks about bird conservation, dined at the U.S. Special Interests Section (the American diplomatic mission in Cuba) and met with Castro. The center noted that Catsimatidis was interested in traveling to Havana ``to familiarize himself with preparations for the consecration of a Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Old Havana.’‘
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who was also on the trip, said at the time that she and Rangel met with Castro and discussed the case of an American who fought in the Cuban Revolution but was later executed.
Kaptur said at the time that top Cuban officials assured her they would consider returning ``Yanqui Comandante’’ William Morgan’s remains.
His body has not been returned.