Shuster Defends Virgin Islands Trip
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rep. Bud Shuster says it was a ″legitimate public works project″ that led him to the Virgin Islands last week.
But congressional sources said things seemed to happen in the reverse order - that the Pennsylvania Republican wanted to go the islands, and dispatched aides to find a reason for the government to send him there.
Shuster toured an airport construction project before leaving St. Thomas island on Wednesday following a four-day stay.
Shuster, a member of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, had his trip to the island of St. Thomas approved ″without compunctions″ by Rep. Glenn Anderson, D-Calif., the panel’s chairman, according to committee aide Paul Schlesinger.
The airport tour came after Public Works staff members had looked into other projects for Shuster to inspect in the Virgin Islands, including one on St. Croix, according to congressional aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While he was in the Virgin Islands, Shuster’s top aides refused to disclose his whereabouts.
″We’re going to take this back to the voters. He did nothing wrong,″ Shuster administrative assistant Ann Eppard said Friday. She said the congressman knew nothing about staff members shopping around for projects, and that if they did that, ″then it was not initiated by the congressman.″
She said Shuster was unavailable for an comment Friday.
Interviewed by telephone Thursday from his rural central Pennsylvania district, Shuster denied that the committee was paying for the entire trip. He said the tour of the airport ″was an official trip, and the committee pays for my airfare back. I spent my own money staying.″
Shuster said the Virgin Islands trip represented ″a couple days off″ and that, ″It’s none of your goddamned business what I do in my personal time.″
Schlesinger, the committee aide, said he was not aware that Shuster had arranged to pay part of the cost.
But Eppard said Shuster got only ″a one-day per diem and a one-way (plane) ticket.″
Like other committees, the House panel is free to sponsor its members on fact-finding missions around the world. Shuster tacked the Virgin Islands trip onto the end of a fact-finding trip to Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras that he had taken with three other House members of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Shuster said he arrived in the Virgin Islands on Dec. 17, the day after the intelligence committee concluded its fact-finding mission. Asked why Shuster did not return home with the others, Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., said, ″He had other business to tend to.″
Shuster, the second-ranking Republican on the Public Works panel and a member of the subcommittee on aviation, inspected the Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas on the same day as his trip home, according to officials of the Virgin Islands Port Authority.
″This is construction of a completely new airport on an existing airport. A lot of money has been appropriated for this project and he wanted to understand what was being done and how far it had progressed,″ said John Harding, executive director of the port authority.
Shuster termed it ″a legitimate public works inspection.″ He said there has been a major cost overrun, and the Federal Aviation Administration had cited the airport ″as being among the most dangerous.″
FAA spokeswoman Joann Sloane said in an interview Friday, ″From what I can find out, it’s not dangerous but they have a short runway. There’s a mountain on one side and water and other, and they’re building the new runway out into where the water is.″
Shuster said aides did not disclose his trip because there was a rule in his office not to reveal his itinerary for security reasons.
Asked about Shuster’s whereabouts earlier this week while he was in the Virgin Islands, aide Karen Schecter had pointed to a wire service photograph appearing in a Pennsylvania newspaper on Dec. 15 - six days earlier - showing the congressman in Managua, Nicaragua.
The conservative Shuster, 56, was just elected to his ninth term. In September, he was presented with his tenth Golden Bulldog Award by a private, non-partisan group which presents awards for fiscal integrity.