GOP ad slams Berkley trip to Italy

Robin Leach, call your agent.

Republicans in their latest ad in the U.S. Senate race for Nevada take a shot at Rep. Shelley Berkley for leading a congressional delegation to Italy after wrapping up an official conference in neighboring Slovenia in May 2008.

Presented in the fashion of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,"  the commercial seeks to raise a fresh question about Berkley's ethics, suggesting her personal wealth made her cavalier about taxpayer dollars.

"Congresswoman Shelley Berkley is rich.  Really rich. But that doesn't stop her from charging taxpayers for her fancy trips," according to a narrator doing a Leach impression.  "It's time to tell Shelley Berkley the party is over."

Berkley at the time was U.S. chairwoman of the Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue, a group of House lawmakers that meets twice a year with counterparts from the European Union to share ideas on economics, security matters and immigration among other topics.

In 2007, Berkley hosted the international conference in Las Vegas.

The trip to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and then to Italy caused a stir at the time after its itinerary was reported in the Washington Post by columnist Al Kamen, who regularly shines spotlights on lawmaker and bureaucrat travel to exotic destinations.

The conference in Slovenia was held May 23 to May 26.  The lawmakers went on to Italy, flying home on May 30, according to U.S. House records.

In Venice, Kamen reported the group was to stay at "the spectacular Westin Europa and Regina Hotel, right on the Grand Canal, where the cheapo rooms run about $1,000 a night."  According to Kamen, the rooms were steeply discounted for the official visitors to fit an  "enhanced per diem," which was $400 for hotel and $223 for meals and incidentals.

From there the group traveled to Naples, where it stayed at "the lovely Hotel Excelsior, right on the water," according to Kamen.

According to U.S. House records, the delegation consisted of seven Democrat and three Republican lawmakers plus seven staffers All told they put in for per diem and other expenses totaling $55,047 for the weeklong trip. The Italy portion cost $30,550.

Berkley's costs were $2,842 for the trip. She submitted $1,099 for per diem and other expenses in Slovenia and $1,743 for per diem and expenses in Italy.

The Berkley campaign said the Republican ad is "blatantly misleading." It charges Berkley "stuck taxpayers with a bill" for $55,000 when her campaign said her portion of the cost was a fraction of that.

"The ad is just not factually correct," Berkley spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said.

Berkley in 2008 defended the Italy trip saying it was not a junket.  She said it was customary for lawmakers to visit "as many countries in the European Union as possible" during trips to conferences

"We have an extremely busy schedule," she said at the time about the Italy portion of the trip, including a memorial wreath laying and visits with U.S. service members at Aviano Air Base outside Venice.

There also were to be meetings with officials in Venice to learn about ongoing research into liquified gas and also how the city, which is built on canals and is sinking, is affected by global warming.

'"It is a busy, busy agenda,," Berkley said while acknowledging there would be down time.  In Venice, "I am going to go on a gondola after I have done the Air Force base and the liquid petroleum meeting," she said.

Berkley said she and her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, also planned to attend the opera. She emphasized they were buying their own tickets.  In Naples, the schedule included a wreath laying at the U.S. Navy base and a "roundtable on bilateral relations and politics," Berkley said at the time.

The Huffington Post reported this summer that Berkley also had dinner in Venice with prominent Washington lobbyists Tony and Heather Podesta.  Berkley told the newsite that "everybody paid for themselves," which made the occasion acceptable under House ethics rules, and that there was no business-related talk.

"That was a strictly Venice dinner," she told the newsite, which used the anecdote in a story about the lifestyles of senators and House members.