The office of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., issued a statement today insisting his trip to Saudi Arabia last year was within House rules.
Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, wasn't available for interviews after a Star Tribune story raised questions about the cost of his religious pilgrimage to Mecca last December. The trip was paid for by the nonprofit Muslim American Society of Minnesota.
Instead, his office issued a statement saying Ellison received approval from the U.S. House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which determined the trip was not subject to disclosure requirements. The statement went on to say Ellison followed all rules and procedures.
Ellison's trip is an example of how privately funded trips, which are legal gifts to members of Congress, are still a source of debate in Washington.
Members of Congress are required to disclose details of just about any gift they receive. But the newspaper reported that Ellison's office called the trip "personal" in nature, and the ethics panel didn't require it to be disclosed.
House financial disclosure rules require the cost of gifts given for "personal benefit" must be included on financial disclosure forms. But according to the newspaper, Ellison's most recent form noted only that he made the trip, in addition to details such as its length, the destination and its sponsor.
According to the Star Tribune, Ellison accepted the 16-day trip last fall, including food and lodging, from the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, where Ellison knows one of the imams. The trip was estimated to cost several thousand dollars.
Two Minnesota politicians, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, say they no longer accept privately paid trips, even though the law allows them.