Education

Republicans Question Purpose Of Riley Trips

By Joetta L. Sack — September 13, 2000 4 min read
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Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has always been popular on the speakers’ circuit, but his busy travel schedule has recently come under increased scrutiny by Republicans in Congress.

With the 2000 election cycle in full swing, two key House Republicans are asking whether some of Mr. Riley’s appearances were actually campaign stops that were improperly underwritten by the federal government. Department of Education officials counter that the secretary has only conducted business as usual, with no hint of political motivation or impropriety.

As a member of the president’s Cabinet, Mr. Riley is allowed to participate in partisan and campaign activities, but must reimburse the government for any travel-related expenses for such outings. He travels on the government dime, however, when conducting official business.

In recent weeks, Mr. Riley, a former governor of South Carolina, visited seven Southern states on an education bus tour, attended the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, and made several appearances around the country to give speeches and visit schools, usually accompanied by a local member of Congress.

The secretary typically attends about 100 events, including school visits, every three months, said his senior counsel, Terry K. Peterson. In June, July, and August, he attended about 120 events.

Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., who chairs its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, have asked if some of Mr. Riley’s taxpayer-financed trips actually equated to campaigning for Democrats. They have asked Mr. Riley to produce, by September 14, travel documents and a breakdown of expenses for all trips going back to January 1997 and detailed reports on trips made this year.

“We understand the need for the secretary and other officials of the Department of Education to engage in a certain amount of travel,” the two chairmen, who are frequent critics of the Education Department, wrote in an Aug. 31 letter to the secretary. “However, by law, taxpayers should only be subsidizing travel expenses required for the conduct of official business—not expenses tied to campaign-related activities.”

Wrangling over such travel is not unusual, said Meredith McGehee, a senior vice president with Common Cause, a political-watchdog organization. She said she was not familiar with the particulars of the Riley case, but added that Cabinet members traditionally have been used by both parties for campaigning, “It’s a pretty bipartisan problem,"Ms. McGehee said.

On the Road

As secretary of education since 1993, Mr. Riley has often traveled around the country to visit schools and attend education-related events. Often, he is joined by local politicians and officials from both parties who are interested in the education issue of the day and, undoubtedly, want to share the ensuing publicity. On his 1999 and 2000 education bus tours, for instance, he was joined in several destinations by governors and members of Congress from both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Mr. Riley fields about 1,400 requests for about every 100 events that he attends, Mr. Peterson said. When planning an event, the Education Department always invites the local congressional representatives and other politicians. But, Mr. Peterson added, because of the Education Department’s agenda, far more Democrats than Republicans accept the invitations.

“We do it in a very impartial way, but it’s awfully naive to think that Republicans that just voted against his proposals on the Hill will show up,” Mr. Peterson said.

But Mr. Goodling and Mr. Hoekstra question two visits to the home districts of Democratic representatives that were cited in a Washington Post article last month. Reps. Michael P. Forbes, D-N.Y., and Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., have been labeled as particularly vulnerable in November’s elections, and Mr. Riley has held school- related events in both of their home districts this year.

Mr. Riley visited Mr. Holt’s New Jersey district on two occasions in April and June, for instance, to discuss class-size reduction and President Clinton’s school modernization proposals, as well as to hold a town meeting with parents and school officials. Peter Yeager, Mr. Holt’s spokesman, said there was no campaigning at the event.

“I don’t understand why it would be construed as that,” Mr. Yeager said. “These are issues that [Mr. Holt] has dealt with every day, throughout his congressional term.”

The one “official” campaign visit, Mr. Peterson said, was an appearance at a breakfast for Rep. Bart Stupak, D- Mich., on July 6. That day, the secretary and Rep. Stupak also visited a school in Traverse City, Mich., to speak on class-size reduction and to release a local analysis of class sizes. Mr. Stupak’s campaign reimbursed the Education Department for the campaign portions of the trip.

Mr. Stupak’s spokesman, Bob Meissner, said that having the education secretary at the event helped attract attention to the study. “We think one of the major issues as we talk about budget and priorities is classroom size,” Mr. Meissner said. “We consider it a major benefit to have the secretary of education come as we’re unveiling the study.”

Traditionally, Cabinet members are also called upon during a presidential-election cycle to help their parties’ national candidates.

Mr. Riley, a longtime friend of Vice President Al Gore, plans to help campaign for the Democratic nominee, Mr. Peterson said. The secretary spent personal time campaigning for Mr. Gore during this year’s Iowa caucuses.

And it is Mr. Riley’s nature to travel frequently, Mr. Peterson added. “He really enjoys hearing about what works in education,” Mr. Peterson said, “and he really likes getting out and talking to students, parents, and teachers.”

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