Every year about 2 million Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to fulfill one of the five obligations mandated by their religion. Some of them walk for miles to get there, or cram into crowded buses and cars. The journey, or Hajj, is usually a time for spiritual reflection and they are known to leave the comforts of home behind and dress in white robes to dissolve cultural and financial differences.
After months of waiting, we have finally discovered that U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., made his own trip of self discovery in somewhat better style. The Muslim American Society of Minnesota paid $13,350 to send Ellison on the two-week trip, which Ellison only disclosed after being forced to.
It's a lot more than I've ever spent on two weeks of travel, but I'll cut him some slack. The Middle East is spendy. While I did find fares as low as $1,780 to Riyadh, they quickly rose from there. A room at the Park Hyatt Marina Club and Spa in Jeddah goes for about $500 a night, though a perfectly fine five-star room at Le Meridien can be had for $226.
Ellison probably wasn't staying in a youth hostel, and I don't expect him to. I am tempted to say it's not my business because it's not my money, but there's more to it than that. The Muslim American Society 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 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 in grants.
As the American Civil Liberties Union has suggested in a lawsuit, that financial shell game appears a little too cozy for comfort if you believe in separation of church and state.
I'm all for our elected officials getting out of the country to see what the rest of the world is about. Too many of them exist in a world that extends only as far as the Washington Beltway. As the country's first Muslim in Congress, Ellison has an exceptional opportunity to foster better understanding and better relations between this country and the world's Muslims. In fact, it's an obligation, and Ellison needs to be a role model and the best public official he can. He doesn't seem to think that includes being transparent and letting his constituents know who is paying his tab.
When Ellison first looked into the trip, he checked with the ethics committee and followed its recommendations. When he returned, however, he told the committee that he didn't go on business, but "instead undertook only the more personal itinerary."
Under ethics guidelines, privately sponsored trips of a purely personal nature are considered gifts, and are subject to full public disclosure. So, the committee told Ellison on Sept. 21 that he had to cough up the numbers. "We consider this change to be merely a minor, technical correction, and we concur that you followed proper procedures and committee guidance," the committee said.
Michael Brodkorb, deputy chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, has other good questions.
"How did this nonprofit account for the trip, and will Congressman Ellison claim this to the IRS as income?" Brodkorb asked. "It seems clear that Congressman Ellison wanted a free trip, and he didn't want people to know about it."
Said Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert: "If the congressman is required to amend his tax forms to reflect this change, he most certainly will do so."
In his tenure thus far, Ellison has sponsored the kind of bills you would expect from a representative in an overwhelmingly liberal district -- bills to help homeless kids, tenants in foreclosures and victims of predatory lending. The kind of legislation his constituents expect.
But this is the second time Ellison has shown he has a tin ear for public perception, the other being when he was arrested to draw attention to Darfur. I would prefer him to get attention for passionate pleas on the House floor, something of which he's capable, or for good legislation. Anybody can get arrested. And a truth in lending bill is great, but how about truth in spending?