Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) would have had to pick up the costs of her trip to Israel to avoid an ethics violation once she told the Jewish state it was a personal trip to see her elderly grandmother.
Tlaib was told last Thursday she'd been denied entry into Israel for an official congressional trip due to her support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The trip was to be funded by Miftah, an anti-Israel group that has defended suicide attacks, and had been approved by the House of Representatives.
Recent Stories in Politics
Everything changed, however, when Tlaib petitioned Israel's minister of the interior to allow her to enter the country for the purpose of seeing her grandmother.
"I would like to request admittance to Israel in order to visit my relatives, and specifically my grandmother, who is in her 90s and lives in Beit Ur al-Fouqa," Tlaib wrote in a letter sent on her office letterhead. "This could be my last opportunity to see her. I will respect any restrictions and will not promote boycotts against Israel during any visit."
Tlaib was granted permission to visit by Israel after the letter but ultimately declined, saying she refused to visit her grandmother under the "oppressive conditions" she herself proposed.
Another reason for her decision is perhaps that she would have had to step in to cover the costs of the trip rather than have them paid by Miftah, the sponsor of the trip.
The House Ethics Committee told the Washington Free Beacon it is unable to comment on a specific matter, but senior congressional aides say Tlaib taking money for the trip after spelling out its personal nature in a letter would have been a violation.
"When congresswoman Tlaib reapplied for entry into Israel for the sole purpose of visiting her grandmother, she made the entire trip a personal matter," said one senior aide. "At that point going on her original trip and allowing the sponsoring group to pay for anything would constitute an illegal gift."
"That's why she couldn't go, if she got on that plane she'd probably be breaking the law by accepting an illegal gift," the aide said.
Kendra Arnold, executive director for the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, said ethics rules are clear on personal travel.
"Once the trip's purpose was for a personal matter, the trip should not be funded by taxpayer dollars or gifts from individuals or entities," Arnold said, adding that Tlaib's case would not qualify for any of the exceptions to the rule.
"The House Ethics Rules broadly prohibit a Member from accepting anything of value from anyone in either a personal or official capacity, unless the gift falls under one of the explicit exceptions," Arnold said. "There does not appear to be an exception that would apply in this circumstance to personal travel."
The House ethics manual states that travel paid for by a private third party must be in connection with the member's official responsibilities (pg. 90). The committee approves trips only after it is determined the trip relates to matters of Congress and an itinerary shows "officially-connected activities scheduled to take place during the trip."
Travel guidelines laid out by the Committee on Ethics state clearly that "travel for personal or recreational purposes" cannot be part of "officially-connected" trips paid for by a private party.
Tlaib said last week her "grandmother was deciding which fig tree [they] would pick from together."
Members are permitted to extend trips at their own expense, but only if the officially connected purpose of the trip remains its primary purpose.
Another potential issue is Tlaib's use of her official letterhead to apply for the personal benefit of being granted entry.
"She should not be using her congressional stationery to ask for personal allowances," Arnold said.
"It's possible she received special treatment by being allowed to visit her family because she applied as a member of Congress and not as an individual," the senior aide said.
The published itinerary for Tlaib's trip shows the delegation planned to fly Delta Airlines from Baltimore to New York and then to Tel Aviv, a trip that costs around $1,000 a person to sit in the main cabin. It is unclear the exact cost of the flight purchased by Miftah.
Tlaib, now a first term congresswoman receiving $174,000 a year, was not personally wealthy when she entered the House, according to public financial disclosure.
Tlaib's congressional office did not respond to numerous requests for comment on the possible ethics issue, and whether it played any role in her decision not to visit her grandma.
Since being rejected for her initial trip, Tlaib has stepped up her vocal criticism of Israel and met with leading groups in the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. The aborted trip has also been used to boost her campaign's fundraising operation.