- A photo posted on Instagram shows Reps. Swalwell and Gallego riding camels during a trip to Qatar.
- A private business group more than $84,000 to host them and three other House members.
- The camel ride may violate ethics rules depending on who paid for it.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Two Democratic congressmen, shirtless and smiling with their wives astride, sat atop camels in March as the Persian Gulf shimmered behind them, photos obtained by Insider show.
The pandemic-era excursion appears to have happened during a trip funded by the US-Qatar Business Council, a trade group that spent more than $84,000 to fly Reps. Eric Swalwell of California and Ruben Gallego of Arizona and their loved ones to Qatar, along with three other lawmakers, according to the nonpartisan LegiStorm website that tracks such travel.
As tens of millions of Americans remained homebound because of COVID-19, the congressmen’s loved ones and three other House members, as well as one other spouse, joined them abroad.
The photos suggest the lawmakers strayed from their official duties during the trip — one of several that private interests have paid for dozens of lawmakers’ travel this year. It’s unclear whether the camel ride violated House ethics rules about privately funded travel.
Neither of the congressmen’s offices responded to questions about the photos and who paid for the outing, which Swallell’s wife and Gallego’s then-fiancée also attended.
“Sand dunes, camels, and the persian gulf,” reads a caption on one of the photos, posted on a now-deleted Instagram account by Sydney Barron Gallego.
Swalwell’s wife, Brittany Watts Swalwell, is riding a camel on the far left side of the picture. All are maskless with their arms outstretched toward the cloudless sky.
The excursion happened on Sealine Beach, not far from where the group was staying at the luxurious, oceanfront Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, Qatar’s capital city. A second photo shows Barron Gallego on a camel as part of an Instagram story.
Swalwell and Gallego’s offices did not respond to questions about whether any taxpayer dollars paid for some parts of the trip, such as an accompanied security detail. The US Qatar Business Council also didn’t respond to questions about whether it paid for the camel excursion.
Other House members who attended the all-expense-paid US-Qatar Business Council trip, but don’t appear in the camel ride photo, were Reps. Luis Correa and Sara Jacobs, both Democrats of California, and Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican of Michigan.
An ethical gray area
These types of privately funded trips — generally paid for by trade groups, universities, or think tanks — are supposed to help lawmakers get on-the-ground, first-hand insight into policy issues that may affect their constituents or legislation they’re involved with.
But government ethics experts say there are so many loopholes to be exploited in such excursions. Though not illegal, they happen in an ambiguous ethical area that offers powerful interests a chance to schmooze with and influence lawmakers. They also favor richer and more powerful groups that can afford to pay the hefty expenses involved.
The trip otherwise included meetings about business opportunities between the US and Qatar, according to an agenda of the getaway. They also visited with representatives of the hospitality industry; met with Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Qatari ambassador to the US; received a briefing on the FIFA World Cup that will be held in Qatar next year; and discussed security matters.
—US-Qatar Business Council (@USQatar) April 1, 2021
Such privately funded trips are different from congressional delegations, which are paid for by the government. Private groups are allowed to pay for lawmakers’ fact-finding trips but still have some restrictions.
The members of Congress on the Qatar trip got approval from the House Ethics Committee ahead of time, as is required by House rules. The documents detailing the trip were then posted publicly, though Gallego’s didn’t state what day they were filed and Swalwell’s disclosure appears to have been filed past the 15-day deadline.
While there are mentions of museum and marketplace visits on the itinerary, none specifically mention a camel ride. Parts of the schedule were open for “personal time.”
House rules forbid private groups from paying for entertainment, which could include a golf game, theater performance, or even a camel ride, during such trips. But family members are allowed to tag along, and routinely do so.
The Qatar trip happened despite a surge in coronavirus cases in Qatar at the time, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, now considered outdated, that urged everyone to wear masks even when outdoors and vaccinated.
Barron Gallego’s Instagram was no longer online as of Friday, although it wasn’t immediately clear how long the account had been down. Barron Gallego is the director of government advocacy at National Association of Realtors. She and Ruben Gallego have been married since early June, according to a wedding photo the congressman posted on Twitter.
In May, Swalwell drew media attention when he scolded the spokesman for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial Georgia Republican, for telling the California Democrat that he could remove his mask at the Capitol because he’d been vaccinated.
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