No improper favors given to visiting U.S. lawmaker: MOFA

Taipei, Feb. 8 (CNA) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) denied Friday that it offered any improper favors to United States Representative Bill Owens (N.Y.-D) during a trip to Taiwan just over a year ago. The statement came after the House Ethics Committee announced in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday that it will continue an ongoing investigation of Owens and the trip, though stressing that the move "does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred." Owens has been accused of having the trip he and his wife took to Taipei from Dec. 27, 2011 to Jan. 1, 2012 organized and paid for by Taiwan's government and its U.S.-based lobbyist at the time, Park Strategies. The outside Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) said in a report released Wednesday that there is "substantial reason to believe" Owens violated House rules prohibiting lawmakers from taking trips that are paid for by lobbyists. MOFA spokesman Steve Hsia denied the allegations, saying the Owens were invited to visit Taiwan by Chinese Culture University in suburban Taipei, which paid for his transportation and hotel fees. Owens had secured OCE approval before visiting Taiwan trip, said Hsia, who did acknowledge, however, that the government did offer Owens logistical help. Because congressional members are considered important foreign guests, it is normal for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States to provide administrative and protocol assistance for their visits to Taiwan, he said. "So it was not wrong for our representative office to help with hotel reservations for the Owens," Hsia said. According to media reports in Taiwan, Owens returned US$22,000 to Taiwan's government for the trip after suspected irregularities were reported. Hsia said the money was then transferred to Chinese Culture University. According to the congressional newspaper The Hill, however, the OCE said in its report that it was Taiwan's government that paid for the visit and that the OCE "was unable to determine whether the Chinese Culture University in turn reimbursed the Taiwan government for the cost of the trip." Taiwan's representative office in Washington, D.C. issued a statement Wednesday to emphasize its strict observation of U.S. laws and congressional rules in inviting American lawmakers to Taiwan. The statement stressed that Owens not only received the OCE's approval for his trip to Taiwan but also completed follow-up legal requirements within 15 days after his trip. Given Owens' important status, the statement said, it was appropriate for Taiwan's Foreign Ministry and its representative office in Washington, D.C. to offer some administrative assistance. The Hill cited Owens as saying that he took the trip to meet with officials at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. because the contract chip maker was considering opening a facility in New York. The Chinese-language, Taipei-based United Daily News reported Friday that Taiwan terminated its contract with lobbyist Park Strategies after the OCE, an independent bipartisan panel created by Congress in 2008, began to probe the Owens case. (By Tony Liao and Sofia Wu)