A respectable report by The Jewish Daily Forward looking beyond the skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee.

Laughs Aside, Junkets Raise Serious Issues

(The Forward)  — Belated revelations of the escapades of a group of congressmen in the Sea of Galilee last year have put a number of more serious issues in the spotlight. Comedians had a field day in the immediate aftermath of a report in Politico that Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder went swimming nude in the company of a group of Republican lawmakers, their families and staff members last August.

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LOL: Congressman Kevin Yoder, shown here with fellow lawmakers, drew plenty of guffaws with revelations that he went swimming in his birthday suit during a trip to Israel. The revelations shone a spotlight on the junkets taken by politicians and even some journalists.

But the group’s long night of eating and drinking at a posh restaurant on the sea’s shore last year, followed by a late-night swim, has also brought to light details of a criminal investigation into alleged corruption by a member of Congress; a legal loophole that allows advocacy groups to take lawmakers on overseas junkets despite policies purportedly banning this, and a debate on the ethics of journalists who also receive free trips to Israel from the group in question — an offshoot of the powerful Washington-based lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

FBI agents came around asking questions of some members of Congress after the tour of 30 Republican lawmakers, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, as the offshoot is known. But as it turns out, the FBI was after bigger fish than Yoder.

Their probe, according to several reports, was aimed at another participant in the delegation, Republican Michael Grimm of New York. Grimm, a subject of federal investigation into his campaign financing, continued from Israel to another privately sponsored trip, to nearby Cyprus. President Panayiotis “Peter” Papanicolaouof the group sponsoring that visit, the Cyprus Federation of America, was arrested in June on corruption charges [FBI file]. Until the arrest, Grimm had failed to file a required report to Congress documenting the sponsored visit. He filed an amended report doing so just one day after the arrest.

For Grimm, public focus on the visit to Israel and the FBI investigation came at a time of other troubling news. Ofer Biton, one of his top fundraisers, was arrested for immigration fraud on August 17. The arrest of Biton, who was also once a prominent aide to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, a controversial Israeli kabbalist, was widely viewed as an attempt to pressure Biton into testifying against Grimm.

The Sea of Galilee incident also highlighted the major role played by the AIEF in cultivating a pro-Israel Congress by taking lawmakers to the Holy Land on fully funded VIP missions.

A glance at the congressmen’s agenda for the tour, provided to the Forward by the organizers, sheds light on the content injected into these junkets. In an event-packed six-day excursion, lawmakers met with Israel’s president, prime minister and opposition leader. They received briefings from top military brass and were taken on tours of the country’s borders, emphasizing what the itinerary described as “strategic” lessons and briefings. Organizers made sure to include a meeting with Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited rule over parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Congress reformed rules governing such privately sponsored trips for members in 2007. The new regulations require advance approval of a trip by the House Committee on Ethics and a full report on expenses once the trip is completed. It forbids participating in trips that lobby organizations are sponsoring to limit their undue influence on lawmakers. But the rules allow for trips to be paid for by charitable organizations, such as AIEF, even if they are closely affiliated with a lobbying group, as AIEF is with AIPAC.

See my dairy. Two names purported to be a spokesperson Patrick Dorton and a managing executive Richard Friedman of AIEF are also paid officials at AIPAC. The website of AEIF is just a shell of a single page with no contact information.

Romney, Ryan, Slam GOP Rep. for Skinny Dipping in Israel  

Israel jaunts set record for most costly trips

AIEF has spent nearly $1.5 $2.0 million on congressional travel in 2011, primarily on a series of trips by members of Congress to Israel over the August recess.

As Roll Call points out in a story, although AIEF is technically a separate organization, it is virtually indistinguishable from AIPAC. As a pro-Israel lobbying group, AIPAC is prohibited from sponsoring most congressional trips. The organization uses a loophole in the ethics rules which does not restrict AIEF in the same manner.

In early August, the Washington Post reported 81 members would travel to Israel in August courtesy of AIEF, the largest group in the two decades AIPAC or its nonprofit arm have been sponsoring the trip.

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