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Bill Owens' $20,000 trip to Taiwan is questioned

Congressman Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) says he will repay more than $20,000 for a junket that he took last December to Taiwan.  The trip was paid for by a university in Taiwan.  But it was planned and organized by a New York lobbying firm, which is no longer allowed under House of Representatives ethics rules. 

In an interview Friday afternoon, Owens initially suggested that his trip to Taiwan last year was proposed by Taiwanese officials.

"Early in 2011, when they invited me to come over," Owens said.

But he then acknowledged under questioning that the idea for the trip came not from his office or from Taiwanese officials but from a lobbying group called Park Strategies.

"I believe you're correct that the first impetus for this specific trip came from them," he said.

Owens also initially downplayed his own role in arranging the trip but he later acknowledged that he spoke directly with former Senator Alfonse D'amato, now a lobbyist who heads Park Strategies.

"I did not focus on the cost of the trip. They indicated that they were going to be paying for it. I didn't know whether I was staying in a five star hotel or a two star hotel. I didn't consider that as I was making my decision," Owens said.

The four-day trip was paid for by a Taiwanese university and cost roughly $22,000. Owens says the trip was cleared by House ethics officials but he confirmed that his office never reported that it was organized by a lobbying group.

"There was no place on the form to disclose it. It was not a question asked of us by ethics," Owens said.

House ethics rules do, in fact, specifically prohibit foreign travel that's facilitated by lobbyists. There is an exemption when that travel involves educational organizations, but only if the school involved is American based. Owens says the complexity of those rules confused his staff.

"I can tell you from my perspective, I would never engage in that kind of activity again without disclosing that to ethics," Owens said.

Owens also defended the decision to bring his wife on the trip, arguing that the presence of his spouse was important for the cultural exchange. Owens' opponent in the race, Watertown Republican Matt Doheny, issued a statement condemning the trip.

He wrote that lobbyists arranged for Owens "a luxurious Christmas vacation for him and his wife."