Ellison under fire for pilgrimage to Mecca, GOP calls for ethics investigation

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Rep. Keith Ellison's private pilgrimage to Mecca last year caused quite a media flurry when he returned home, but the trip appears to be causing even more problems months later.

After some questioning about how his trip was funded immediately after his return, the Star Tribune reported yesterday that his trip was paid for by a Minnesota Islamic nonprofit that is connected to a local charter school under fire for potential state funding violations.

Now the Minnesota GOP has called for a House Ethics Committee investigation into the funding of his trip.

According to the Star Tribune, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota paid for his pilgrimage. That group has received close to $900,000 in taxpayer dollars in 2006 and 2007 from Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), a local charter school currently under fire as well. The money was part of a rental agreement for the school. The executive director of TiZA, Asad Zaman, is a political donor of Ellison's and came along on his trip.

TiZA was recently sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for allegedly promoting Islam and violating the seperation of church and state. City Pages recently wrote about this ongoing controversy.

Ellison insists it was a private trip and he received prior approval from the ethics committee. A school spokesman told the Star Tribune that no public money was used for the trip. Ellison has withheld the cost of the trip because he believes it was private and not related to his work as a member of Congress.

More from the Star Tribune:
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.
The connections to TiZA and their funding is complicated. Check out the full Strib story for more details.

State Republicans responded, asking the House Ethics Committee to investigate any possible violations in reporting the trip and its funding.

Excerpts from their letter:
In spite of congressional gift rules and IRS regulations, Rep. Ellison has stubbornly refused to disclose the cost of the trip. "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," the Star Tribune reported.

Rep. Ellison's actions and stonewalling are clearly wrong and he should apologize to the people of Minnesota. Taxpayer money intended for students must never be used for a politician's personal travel. To avoid the appearance of inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, we also believe he should reimburse the state for any and all expenses incurred during this travel immediately.

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