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The Congressman, the Safari King, and the Woman Who Tried to Look Like a Cat

How did the chair of the House ethics committee end up on a corporate-backed African safari? Meet the shadowy nonprofit that throws some of DC's finest junkets.

Victor Juhasz

In August 2012, as most members of Congress were hitting the campaign trail, three Republican lawmakers were enjoying an all-expenses-paid retreat at Ol Jogi, a private 66,000-acre ranch in Kenya's lush highlands. This "African Versailles" features a golf course, racetrack, dozens of man-made lakes, around 120 miles of road, more than 200 major buildings, and some 350 employees. The representatives—including Alabama's Jo Bonner, then the chairman of the House ethics committee—were ostensibly there to learn about threats to the ranch's idyllic landscapes and herds of wild animals, which were made famous in the Oscar-winning 1985 film Out of Africa.

Ol Jogi is owned by a trust benefiting the Wildenstein family, a secretive, embattled Franco-American aristocratic line; the clan has been accused of buying art looted by the Nazis, among other misdeeds. Over five generations, the Wildensteins have amassed a fortune estimated to be worth as much as $10 billion by dealing art, breeding horses, and—according to French authorities—evading a reported $800 million in taxes. One family member received a multimillion-dollar mansion for her 17th birthday; another has spent millions on plastic surgery to make herself look more like a cat. Since 1990, the Wildensteins and a family firm have given nearly $150,000 to Republican candidates and campaign committees.

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Given the family's history of support for the party, it's no surprise that Bonner, along with top GOP fundraiser Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), chose to overlook their hosts' legal difficulties and visit the site of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford's African love affair. What's more intriguing is who paid for the 10-day, $47,000 adventure for the legislators (as well as Bonner's and Black's spouses and Granger's son): the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, a mysterious charity based out of a two-story townhouse in the posh Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC.

One family member received a multimillion-dollar mansion for her 17th birthday; another has spent millions on plastic surgery to make herself look more like a cat.

It may not have a glass-and-steel headquarters, but the ICCF counts among its supporters some of America's most powerful corporations and special interests. The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund helped launch the group and are the only members of its Advisory Council. Meanwhile, the foundation's Conservation Council includes ExxonMobil and six other Fortune 500 companies, as well as trade groups (like the American Petroleum Institute and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board) that represent environmentally destructive industries.

The ICCF's mission statement says it aims "to advance US leadership in international conservation...and to develop the next generation of conservation leaders in the US Congress." The group's corporate backers, however, hear a different story. A company that supports ICCF gets "an unparalleled opportunity for access and visibility, to have its voice heard and its perspective appreciated by many of the most powerful leaders in Congress," according to a confidential summary of the foundation's schmoozing with lawmakers sent to members in September and obtained by Mother Jones.

The ICCF can offer donors this "unparalleled" access because a loophole in congressional travel and lobbying restrictions allows educational foundations to wine and dine lawmakers in ways lobbyists can't. It has filed tax returns that contradict congressional ethics disclosures and failed to report key financial information, leaving the public in the dark about how it pays for expensive trips like Bonner's.

What's clear is that the ICCF provides polluters and their lobbyists entrée to a vast number of legislators: With 141 members on both sides of the aisle, the International Conservation Caucus, its bipartisan sister organization, is one of the largest of the hundreds of official congressional groups lawmakers have formed to pursue common goals and interests. (Other caucuses range from the obscure Contaminated Drywall Caucus to conservative Democrats' Blue Dog Coalition.) Perks like exotic trips, opulent galas, and the opportunity to "work with"—and raise money from—"conservation-oriented corporations committed to policies of good stewardship," as a letter sent to prospective members put it, have helped the ICC recruit fully a quarter of Congress: 117 representatives and 23 senators have joined.*

But in its work with lawmakers, the ICCF has been timid at best on conservation issues. The group is silent on climate change and rarely takes controversial stands. Its partners on Capitol Hill include Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), whose staffers have gone on three separate ICCF-organized trips; Inhofe, a leading climate change denier, won the Center for Biological Diversity's 2012 Rubber Dodo Award for his work to "drive endangered species extinct." Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) who earned a score of zero (out of 100) from the League of Conservation Voters in 2012, is also a member. House ICC co-chairman Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) and 40 other representatives in the caucus have LCV scores of 10 or less, as well.*

Why would green groups support an organization that works with polluting companies, the oil lobby, and anti-environment lawmakers? The answer has a lot to do with funding. Massive conservation organizations like those on the foundation's Advisory Council struggle to sustain budgets that can reach nearly a billion dollars a year. They don't raise that kind of money with small donations; they must aggressively pursue multimillion-dollar corporate contributions and government grants. In this pursuit, the ICCF plays a crucial role.

One ICCF outing, a $30,700, 10-day tour of Botswana and South Africa that Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) and his wife took in August 2011, was the second most expensive on record for any member of Congress.

As in most exclusive clubs, the perks the foundation offers rise with the size of the contributions. ICCF membership—which starts at $25,000, tax-deductible—includes tickets to inside-the-Beltway events hosted by the foundation; there's an annual Congressional Oyster Roast & Frogmore Stew, and past galas have featured British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Edward Norton, and Harrison Ford. For an additional $25,000, partners can host congressional coffee briefings, luncheons, and dinners, where lawmakers can learn about, for example, Walmart's "Commitment to Sustainability" or the "Oil and Gas Industry's Investment in Conservation." There are also unspecified extra perks for partners who pay for the copyrighted $100,000-per-year "Teddy Roosevelt Steward" designation. John Gantt, the foundation's president, says the top contributors get "additional seats at major events," but declined to provide more details.

When Tony Blair and Indiana Jones aren't enough, the ICCF woos lawmakers by taking them on "educational field missions." Since December 2007, it has led 39 Republican and 26 Democratic aides and lawmakers on 10 group trips at a cost of more than $350,000. In addition to Bonner's Ol Jogi visit, the foundation has organized excursions to Botswana, Tanzania, South Africa, Brazil, and Costa Rica. One outing, a $30,700, 10-day tour of Botswana and South Africa that Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) and his wife took in August 2011, was the second most expensive on record for any member of Congress. "This is not educational," says Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen. "This is influence peddling available primarily only to special interests that have a lot of money to throw around."


Update: LCV's 2012 lawmaker scores and the 2013 ICC membership list were not available until after this story went to press. Three members of the House ICC are representatives of US territories and a fourth member is a chaplain. Neither the representatives from US territories nor the chaplain vote on legislation. The web version has been updated to reflect the latest data. Click here to return.

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