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POLITICO: Who paid the GOP bar tab in Galilee?

Politico reports today that, prior to their drunken swim in the Sea of Galilee, Republican Congressmen including Florida’s own Steve Southerland “racked up a tab of $340 to $500 on booze, ranging from vodka to wine.” This begs the question — just how drunk was Congressman Southerland when he joined a naked Congressman Yoder for this late night dip in Israel? 

POLITICO: Who paid the GOP bar tab in Galilee?

By: Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan
August 24, 2012 04:28 AM EDT

A late night in Israel that had members of Congress diving into the Sea of Galilee — one naked, others partially clothed — began with confusion about who would cover the bar tab for House Republicans, spouses and aides. 

And it ended back in the United States, where the FBI questioned staff on the trip about the dinner, exactly who jumped into the water and whether anything inappropriate had happened as Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) removed his clothes, according to sources with direct knowledge of agents’ line of questioning.

The trip has gotten national attention since a POLITICO story unveiled the FBI’s involvement, Yoder’s nudity and Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) rebuke of lawmakers who had lost “focus” of the trip.

But more details are emerging from sources close to the events, painting a fuller picture of the American Israel Education Foundation’s trip that ended up become an embarrassing incident for House Republicans and the party’s leadership. AIEF is the nonprofit arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, long considered one of the most powerful advocacy groups in Washington. AIEF has sponsored hundreds of trips to Israel for lawmakers, aides and journalists since 2000, spending more than $7 million on those trips, public records show. 

The night — Aug. 18, 2011 — was the group’s first free evening the whole trip. Previous evenings included dinners with policy experts, Israeli politicians and the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Accompanying the GOP group for part of the trip was Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul who has donated nearly $100 million to Republican candidates this election cycle. Adelson took them to Yad V’Shem, a famed Israeli Holocaust museum, for which he is a major donor, sources said. Adelson did not travel with the group to Galilee, participants said. An Adelson-affiliated charity donated $1.2 million to AIEF in 2006, but he is not currently a donor to the group, sources said.

The stop in Tiberias, an ancient city on the Sea of Galilee, was a time for the 40-plus GOP lawmakers and staff to relax and blow off steam. A festive dinner at Decks, a waterside eatery, began around 9 p.m., sources on the trip said. After a few hours, dinner was over, and the Republicans repaired to the bar. 

After several hours of drinking, Rob Bassin, AIPAC’s national political director, paid the tab for the entire evening, which included several hundred dollars for drinks, in addition to the earlier meal. The GOP group racked up a tab of $340 to $500 on booze, ranging from vodka to wine, sources familiar with the trip said.

Steve Stombres, Cantor’s chief of staff, objected, concerned about ethics rules that prohibited the organization from paying for anything more than dinner. Stombres’s concern was so sharp that he spent the next few days collecting money from lawmakers to pay back AIEF.

Neither Bassin nor Stombres would comment for the record.

House ethics rules allow “reasonable expenses” for food and lodging but do not cover “entertainment or recreational activities,” such as late-night drinks. 

“Necessary expenses include reasonable expenses for transportation, food, and lodging, but do not include expenditures for entertainment or recreational activities,” the House Ethics Manual states. “In judging the reasonableness of food expenses, the Committee considers the maximum per diem rates for meals and incidental expenses for official government travel published by the General Services Administration or, for international travel, the maximum rate for meals and incidental expenses published by the State Department.”

After the Republican group returned to the United State, the FBI began questioning staff on the trip. The bureau’s questions centered on the lawmakers’ behavior in the water — they inquired about who took a dip and the preceding dinner, according to sources with direct knowledge of the inquiry.

The political fallout following the revelation of a lawmaker going skinny-dipping has been sharp, turning what was a routine Israel trip into fodder for tabloid headlines and comedians.

Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) accused his primary opponent — Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) — of leaking the story to POLITICO. Schweikert denied he has provided information to reporters about the incident. Schweikert is using it to paint Quayle as irresponsible. Quayle said he went swimming to collect water for his daughter’s baptism — the Sea of Galilee is where Christians believe Jesus walked on water.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who jumped in the water with his wife, told a local television station there was no FBI investigation, contradicting Cantor’s office, which publicly acknowledged that the bureau did contact staff.

Reed, in an interview with YNN of New York, said when Yoder got disrobed, the fun stopped.

“It was one of those moments where we decided, it’s a long hot day and everyone else is going swimming, we’ll go swimming,” Reed said, in the interview posted on YNN’s website. “But obviously when Congressman Yoder disrobed, that was inappropriate and it ceased the activity immediately. And we recognize that, don’t condone it. It was inappropriate. But at the time when we were making the decision to go into the sea, it was just one of those moments where my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘It’s a hot day and we’re at the Sea of Galilee. We’ll go in but appropriately clothed.’”

Other media outlets have reported that the FBI interest centered on Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) or how expenses from the trip were officially reported by members and aides.

Grimm, a former FBI agent himself, is under Justice Department investigation over his ties to Ofer Biton, an aide to a prominent Israeli rabbi who helped Grimm raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the 2009-10 campaign. Biton was recently arrested by federal agents on immigration charges. 

Grimm, who was part of the late-night swimming group, left Israel for Cyprus shortly after this incident. Grimm failed to report his Cyprus stop-off for nearly a year, according to a report in The New York Times. Peter Papanicolaou, the president of the Cyprus Federation of America — sponsor of Grimm’s trip to the island nation — was recently arrested on bribery allegations. 

However, sources familiar with the FBI’s scrutiny of the Israel trip said federal investigators’ questions were not focused on Grimm.

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