Thursday, May 25, 2006

Firms Donated to Groups That Gave Judges Free Trips
Firms Donated to Groups That Gave Judges Free Trips
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer

Two organizations that have provided free trips to hundreds of federal judges received large contributions from tobacco, oil and other corporate interests, according to documents released yesterday.

The Montana-based Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and George Mason University's Law & Economics Center previously said corporate money does not pay for the judges' seminars or declined to disclose their donors.

But documents released by the Community Rights Counsel, a nonprofit Washington law firm, show that corporations including Exxon Mobil, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco have contributed tens of thousands of dollars toward these programs. The new information comes as judicial trips are receiving increased scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where bills would either outlaw such trips or create an inspector general for the judicial branch.

Opponents of these seminars -- often held at pleasant places with plenty of time to do pleasant things, such as play golf and ride horses -- is a way to lobby powerful judges who often decide cases that change industries and roil markets. The groups generally pay for judges' travel, lodging, food and tuition expenses, and together have funded 1,158 trips for 349 federal judges between 1992 and 2004, according to the Community Rights Counsel.

Douglas T. Kendall, the counsel's executive director, said the two seminar groups "have consistently misled the media, the public and participating judges about the nature of their operations and the extent of their corporate support."

For example, in a letter to The Washington Post last year, FREE's chairman said the group "accepts no corporate support for the judges' seminars nor support from any foundation with links to business or involvement in litigation."

But documents released yesterday show that the Exxon Mobil Foundation gave FREE $50,000 in 2004, including $20,000 for "federal judicial seminars."

"How does it look? It doesn't look good," said Pete Geddes, FREE's executive vice president. But he said that despite what the Exxon Mobil documents say, corporate money does not go to reimburse federal judges who attend the seminars, which provide a free-market perspective in solving the nation's environmental problems.

Corporate money, he said, is used for rent, salaries and overhead, not for reimbursing judges for their expenses. He acknowledged that that might be a distinction that makes little difference. "We try to do the best we can," he said. "Everyone understands money is fungible."

George Mason's Law & Economics Center, which has focused on issues such as tort reform, declines to release any information on donors or fundraising.

Documents released by the Community Rights Counsel, including some released as a part of the national tobacco settlement, appear to show that the center's officials asked R.J. Reynolds Tobacco for $20,000 for the federal judges program, according to a Reynolds internal e-mail. The center received $40,000 from Philip Morris from 1996 through 1999, and was listed as one of the company's "key allies" among public policy groups. The center also received $40,000 from the Exxon Mobil Foundation in 2004.

Francis H. Buckley, a law professor who serves as director of the center, said the policy of silence when it comes to donors is best for everyone involved. He also declined to say where the seminars take place, citing security reasons. "We've been advised that there are more ethical problems if you disclose than if you don't," he said.

He also said that corporate funding makes up 15 percent of the center's $1.67 million annual budget and that no single corporation's donation adds up to more than 2 percent of the budget.

Leaders of both organizations stressed that their programs offer serious, academic discussions about complex legal issues moderated by giants in their fields. They are not barbecues on the beach. And besides, they argue, few groups are as sophisticated as federal judges, who routinely moderate between some of the nation's best and highest paid legal advocates.

"I don't think they're going to come to Montana, go on a horsy ride and run home and strike down federal environmental laws," Geddes said.