Days after his return from an unannounced pilgrimage to the Islamic holy site of Mecca, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison talked about it as a transformational personal experience, saying "I didn't want to turn it into a politics thing."
Nearly eight months later, the Minneapolis DFLer faces a House Ethics Committee review of his decision to keep the trip's costs under wraps -- even though it was paid for by a local Islamic nonprofit and typically would be reported as a gift to a public official.
Asked about the trip Tuesday, Ellison said that he is "not privy to the internal workings of the organization" that covered his costs, and that he complied with all House Ethics panel disclosure requirements. "Why should I waive a right that's accorded me under the rules?" he said.
Tax records show the group that paid Ellison's expenses, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, received nearly $900,000 in taxpayer money in 2006 and 2007 from a rental arrangement for Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), an Inver Grove Heights charter school.
The man who accompanied Ellison to Mecca, Asad Zaman, is executive director of the TiZA school, a political contributor of Ellison's and was president of the Muslim American Society until August, when the Mecca trip was planned.
TiZA has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and probed by state officials for allegedly promoting Islam, which would violate the church and state separation required of public schools -- including charter schools.
The school received state funding to pay rent to the Muslim American Society Property Holding Corp., a nonprofit spinoff of the Muslim American Society that owned the building. The corporation then turned over $879,000 to the Muslim society as a grant.
Those close connections have opened Ellison to questions about the nature of the trip. Ellison on Tuesday called it "a private trip," adding that he had told the ethics committee of the trip beforehand and received its approval. A spokesman for the school says no public money was used for the trip, or Hajj, which Ellison took as a once-in-a-lifetime fulfillment of his religious duty as a practicing Muslim. The 16-day pilgrimage is considered one of the most solemn acts in Islam, one that is supposed to be undertaken free of debts and unmet family obligations.
Ellison has justified withholding the cost by citing the religious nature of his journey to Saudi Arabia, saying it had nothing to do with his duties as a congressman.
Such trips generally must be reported under congressional gift rules that call for full financial disclosure. IRS rules, moreover, bar nonprofit religious groups from furthering individuals' "private interests."
Ellison, however, reported the trip under more permissive House rules for outside business activities -- Boy Scout trips, for example -- that are unrelated to congressional duties, but which are not purely for private benefit. Those rules do not require cost accounting.
A public figure who has faced some hostility as the first Muslim member of Congress, Ellison has been reluctant to reveal details of the trip, which is estimated to have cost several thousand dollars.
The Muslim American Society's grants -- for $550,000 in 2007, and $329,000 in 2006 -- represented the proceeds of rent paid by the state of Minnesota for TiZA.
The financial connection to the school rent money is spelled out in the holding company's tax filings for 2006 and 2007: "Receives rent from government agency and donates to MAS of MN [Muslim American Society of Minnesota]."
Zaman did not respond to several inquiries seeking comment on the Mecca trip. In the ACLU's lawsuit, which alleges that the property holding company effectively transferred government charter school funds to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, the ACLU quotes Zaman as saying that "Islam makes no distinction between public and private life."
Twin Cities public relations executive Blois Olson, who is serving as a spokesman for the school, said there is no connection between the TiZA rent money and Ellison's trip, which took place in late November and early December of 2008.
Olson said the Muslim American Society of Minnesota stopped getting the rent funds for the school in early 2007, more than a year before the trip.
At that time, the school property was transferred to the Minnesota Education Trust, Olson said, a separate nonprofit that now acts as TiZA's leaseholder. As part of that transfer, Olson said, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota Holding Corp. turned over $315,000 in rent proceeds to the trust.
The rest of the lease aid, Olson said, went to retire a private $1.3 million loan on the school property.
As a religious organization, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota is not required to make its finances public.
Olson said the Muslim group funded Ellison's trip because it wanted to improve communications "between Muslim-Americans and the broader Muslim world."
The connection between the school and Ellison's trip has propelled him squarely into at debate in the Minnesota Legislature about leasing organizations like the Muslim American Society Property Holding Corp. and how they use their public rent funds.
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, who chairs the K-12 Education Finance Division Committee, said the state funds were intended to help charter schools rent space.
She said she is troubled by the large grants to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, whether or not the money can be tied directly to Ellison's trip.
"It calls into question the sensibility of the people who lead the school," Greiling said. "And to send Keith Ellison off to Mecca just compounds it."
State officials say the arrangement illustrates long-standing concerns about the relationship between charter schools and the affiliated groups who hold their leases.
Chas Anderson, deputy commissioner for the state education department, said that state law does not regulate how lease dollars are spent by such property-holding corporations.
"While this type of relationship is legal, it is nonetheless concerning," she said of the TiZA payments.
TiZA, which also has a campus in Blaine, received an estimated $4.7 million in state aid this year, including more than $520,000 in annual lease aid. The school also got more than $873,000 in federal charter school grants last year.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU, said the flow of any public funds to a sectarian group that funded a public official's trip to a religious site heightens the questions Samuelson's group has raised about the separation of church and state.
"The group that paid for it [the trip] gets a large part of its money from the public trough," Samuelson said.Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report.