COLUMBUS — Republican legislative leaders from at least four states have acknowledged taking part in a London summer trip with lobbyists and an Ohio speaker who recently resigned citing questioning by federal investigators about his activities.
Minnesota Speaker Kurt Daudt, Wisconsin Speaker Robin Vos, Michigan Speaker Tom Leonard and North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson were at the four-day event with Republican Ohio Speaker Cliff Rosenberger last August, The Associated Press confirmed.
The event was sponsored and paid for by the GOPAC Education Fund’s Institute for Leadership Development. GOPAC works to elect Republicans to higher office.
The politicians emphasized the money for the trip did not come from taxpayers, said they were not lobbied during the event and said they had complied with ethics laws in their states.
The powerful Rosenberger, who quit last week, had been criticized for his lavish lifestyle, including traveling around the world and staying in a luxury downtown Columbus condo owned by a wealthy Republican donor. He has said he believes his actions as speaker were “ethical and lawful.”
Ohio’s ethics laws, like those in most states, prohibit legislators from accepting valuable gifts but allow them to accept travel expenses to conferences related to official business if they aren’t exchanged for legislative favors.
Rosenberger, who made about $101,000 a year as a lawmaker, was allowed to pay for work-related trips through his own campaign fund, through House Republicans’ political fund or through a stipend from an outside group such as GOPAC.
GOPAC, like many other groups that seek to inform state legislators, takes contributions from corporations to help fund its budget. An Ohio lobbyist who attended the London trip told the AP that corporations pay membership fees to the group that make them privy to invitations to events at which lawmakers will be present.
Among corporations attending the London event were Altria, Comcast, Walmart and Select Management, operator of the title lending business LoanMax, which has lobbying interests in Ohio, Wisconsin and several other states.
GOPAC Executive Director Jessica Curtis confirmed that Rosenberger and an Ohio state representative were among event guests.
An Ohio-based lobbyist for LoanMax, Steve Dimon, also was on the trip. Title and payday lenders have been lobbying against proposed legislation that would place restrictions on their industry.
Dimon said he saw Rosenberger on the trip but declined to comment on whether they discussed any legislation or whether he has since been questioned by the FBI.
The FBI has said it will neither confirm nor deny there’s an investigation into Rosenberger.
Carlson said he attended the trip with money from GOPAC and from his own pocket and he was unaware at the time of Rosenberger’s resignation announcement of any investigation.
“It was paid for by GOPAC. It wasn’t taxpayer money,” Carlson said. “It was my time and my dime.”
Vos and Rosenberger, friends who had appeared together at events, showed up together in photos from the London trip, along with lobbyists from their states.
Vos said he had not been contacted by the FBI or other authorities or discussed any legislation with lobbyists on the trip or since. He said Tuesday he supported looser regulation of title lenders because they serve people with no other access to credit.
“They serve a portion of the marketplace, which is why I believe they should operate with reasonable regulations,” Vos said.
Vos’ Republican caucus had considered making changes this session to rules for rent-to-own stores, but he said it did not consider any changes for title lending.
Daudt’s office said his trip was paid for by GOPAC. It said he had not been contacted by the FBI about the trip or about Rosenberger.
Leonard’s office confirmed Leonard was in attendance but said he was not lobbied on the trip.
Leonard’s spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said Leonard is on the legislative leaders advisory board to GOPAC, which organized the event as an educational opportunity ahead of Britain’s impending exit from the European Union. He said lawmakers and lobbyists who attended met with members of Parliament to talk about best practices and with trade officials to discuss the impacts of Brexit and opportunities for international trade.
Associated Press reporters Kyle Potter in St. Paul, Minnesota; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; and James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota, contributed to this report.