Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and five of his Congressional Black Caucus colleagues joined Citicorp on a junket to the Caribbean only a week or so after the Senate and House votes on the TARP $700 billion bailout package. American Airlines provided the tickets to this junket for members of Congress.

Citigroup and American Airlines should have been aware that corporate sponsorship of such an event was banned by House Rules adopted on March 1, 2007, in response to the Abramoff scandal and the infamous golf trip to Scotland.

According to House ethics rules, members of Congress and their staffs cannot accept multiday trips from a corporation that “employs or retains a registered lobbyist. Included in this limitation are companies, firms, non-profit organizations (including charities), and other private entities that retain or employ a lobbyist.”

The New York Post was the first to write about this junket questioning the appropriateness of this kind of lavish spending when the economy was supposedly in a crisis. They noted the illegal donations.

…legislators enjoyed free airfare, meals and hotel rooms covered by the trip’s organizer – and paid for by donations from corporations such as IBM, AT&T, Verizon, Citigroup, Pfizer, Macy’s and American Airlines, a Post investigation discovered.

American Airlines has totally stonewalled any news investigations into their “donations” of airfare for our legislators. Now with the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) beginning an investigation, American will have to answer questions and provide specifics.

According to reports in The Hill:

… two spokeswomen for American Airlines, the largest carrier from the U.S. to the Caribbean, told The Hill that the company recently provided in-kind donations of tickets for Rangel and five other members of Congress to fly from their districts to St. Maarten, a tropical island in the northeast Caribbean. According to ethics experts, the American Airlines donation of tickets for members to use for a specific trip is a clear violation of House ethics rules governing travel. American Airlines has spent more than $6 million on lobbying in the first three-quarters of this year.

“We provided in-kind support,” said Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines. “It was sometime in the fall when the tickets were provided to the foundation. We’ve done this for the past couple of years.”

Pantin would give neither the exact date nor an estimate of the overall cost of the tickets. She also could not say whether the tickets were sent to the members of Congress directly or provided through the foundation, nor would she provide a contact person at the nonprofit who organized and planned the trip.

According to the New York Post, a spokeswoman for American Airlines said the company “is pleased to be one of many sponsors to help in the success of the conference,” although she would not say how much the airline had donated.

AA claims to have sent its contribution directly to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which is not listed as a sponsor of the St. Maarten event, though they were hailed as sponsors at the junket gala.

In addition to Rangel, the other members of Congress who attended were Donald Payne (D-NJ), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-MI), Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Donna Christensen (D-VI).

The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) has asked the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), for a formal review of this junket. Now Rangel, the other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Citicorp and American Airlines are on the hot seat.

The NLPC stated: When the TARP was presented to Congress, it was argued that the situation was dire, and that the failure of major financial institutions posed a systemic risk to our economy. The stated goal was to unfreeze credit so that banks can make loans to businesses and individuals. It was never contemplated that banks use their capital to buy influence on Capitol Hill by funding vacations for members of Congress.

It seems that the very people who vowed to “drain the swamp” are splashing in the swamp grasses and finding ways to get their perks, travel expenses and campaign contributions in spite of the very rules and regulations they themselves created and for which they voted.

For Citicorp, American Airlines and the other sponsors, it is business as usual on the lobbying and Washington influence peddling front. Only now, the rules have changed.

Will these ethics rules will be followed? Will Speaker Nancy Pelosi stand behing her “zero tolerance” policy? Can we believe House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer when he said the House had adopted a zero-tolerance policy when it came to gifts from lobbyists?

Somehow I doubt it.