Laughs Aside, Junkets Raise Serious Issues

Congressman's Naked Swim Put Spotlight on Freebie Trips

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.
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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.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 23, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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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. 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. The president of the group sponsoring that visit, the Cyprus Federation of America, was arrested in June on corruption charges. 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.


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