Dirty Laundry: Ortiz, 14-Term Lawmaker Has A Shady History of Trading Earmarks for Travel

February 23, 2010

Ortiz, 14-Term Lawmaker Has A Shady History of Trading Earmarks for Travel

Ortiz Accepts Tens of Thousands of Dollars Worth of Travel from Hometown Corporations


SPIN CYCLE: Speaker Pelosi Vowed that Democrats Would Lead the “Most Honest, Most Open, and Most Ethical Congress in History”


“Our goal is to restore accountability, honesty and openness at all levels of government. To do so, we will create and enforce rules that demand the highest ethics from every public servant, sever unethical ties between lawmakers and lobbyists, and establish clear standards that prevent the trading of official business for gifts.” (Nancy Pelosi’s “A New Direction for America,” Page 21)


RINSE CYCLE: Ortiz Has A Shady History of Trading Earmarks for Travel

Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) has accepted tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of trips to China from a development corporation in his hometown that he aided by securing earmarks and other federal assistance worth millions of dollars.

Ortiz has also traveled on at least one of these trips with his former chief of staff, Lencho Rendon, who was working for Ortiz when he secured a $5 million earmark for the Robstown Improvement Development Corp. The corporation has now hired Rendon as a consultant. Robstown Improvement is a nonprofit, city-chartered corporation that uses sales tax revenue to try to spur economic development in the city.

On Jan. 2, Ortiz, Rendon and seven other businessmen and local officials flew to China for a nine-day visit sponsored by Robstown Improvement.

The documents indicate that Robstown Improvement paid just over $10,000 for the lawmaker’s transportation, lodging and meals, but Gonzalez said other participants on the trip, including two representatives of private companies, paid their own way.

Robstown — Ortiz’s hometown — is a city of fewer than 15,000 people located 15 miles inland of Corpus Christi, at the juncture of several major railways and a prime north-south highway. The Robstown Trade Processing and Inland Center is the development corporation’s proposed trade center that would consolidate warehouses, customs processing and inspections for cargo coming into the Port of Corpus Christi and provide centralized access to road and rail transport.

In fiscal 2009, Ortiz obtained a $237,000 earmark for the project, but it appears it was not the first time he secured funding for the center.

The inland center received a $5 million earmark in the 2005 highway bill — also known as the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. While Congress at the time was not required to identify by name the sponsors of earmarks, it seems clear this was an Ortiz earmark. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported at the time that “discussion about the trade center began about 18 months ago, when Robstown mayor Rodrigo Ramon and U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz … began talking about ways to relocate the rail lines that run through the city of Robstown.”

At the time, Rendon was Ortiz’s chief of staff. But in February 2006, Rendon established a consulting firm called LR Group — according to his final financial disclosure form filed with the Clerk of the House — and in May 2006 he resigned.

Ortiz told Roll Call that while Rendon “was aware of the inland trade center [while he worked on the Hill], I was the single force behind getting it approved.”

Rendon’s firm, LR Global, is now a consultant to the development corporation. A newspaper article describing plans for the trade center cited LR Global as the source of the information.

In December, Ortiz, a 14-term lawmaker, announced that through his efforts, the inland center had received a $4 million grant from the Department of Commerce to construct water system infrastructure for the center. Gonzalez said the city is still completing a feasibility study for the trade center, but it has purchased a large parcel of land where officials hope to begin construction.

Ortiz, who sits on the Armed Services and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, has been a regular traveler to China; previous news reports have indicated he has made more than 40 trips to China and Taiwan during his tenure in Congress. In 2004 alone, he and Rendon made four 10-day trips to Asia paid for in large part by various business groups, according to documents on file with the Clerk of the House.

His 2009 financial disclosure form indicated that he took two trips to China in 2008 sponsored by the Robstown development corporation, but he did not file travel disclosure documents with the House ethics committee for those trips. A press release from a solar cell manufacturing company called China Sunergy indicated that a 12-person delegation including Ortiz visited the company’s Nanjing facilities in April 2009, but Ortiz has not filed travel disclosure forms for that trip either.

Roll Call reported in 2008 that Ortiz and Rendon each invested thousands of dollars in a Chinese telecommunications project in 2005 with a Texas businessman whose company paid nearly $20,000 to fly them to China. (Paul Singer, “Hometown Makes Ortiz a Frequent Flier,” Roll Call, 2/23/2010)

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