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Congressman pocketed $18,000 for RIAA ‘lobbying trip’

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The powerful Congressman at the center of the controversy over royalty rates for small webcasters took $18,000 from the Recording Industry Association of America.

As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner was instrumental in forcing the deal that could result in an antitrust suit against the RIAA being filed by small webcasters.

The trouble is, Congressmen are forbidden from taking private donations to lobby abroad. Sensennbrenner recorded the visit to Taiwan and Thailand back in January, as a "fact finding mission".

According to the House Ethics Committee's advisory booklet on Gifts and Travel, "Members and staff may not accept expenses from a private source for travel the primary purpose of which is to conduct official business."

"If he's dictating policy, he should be a representative of the United States, not the RIAA," Boycott-RIAA founder Bill Evans told us.

The RIAA has confirmed that the purpose of Sensenbrenner's paid-for jaunt was one of exposition: "so they understand that this is a unified message coming from all levels of the U.S. government," according to an RIAA spokesperson.

"His own description belies that it was a 'fact-finding' trip," says Gary Ruskin, of the Congressional Accountability Project watchdog.

$18,000 can go a long way in Thailand. Sensenbrenner's brief trip was for just five days.

Three months before his five-day RIAA-sponsored trip, Sensenbrenner surprised observers by taking a close interest in the Small Webcasters Settlement Act (HR.5469) which morphed from the anticipated six-month cooling off period into a bill specifying detailed rates and conditions, which many small webcasters found unpalatable. According to participants in the negotiations, Sensenbrenner forced the webcasters to come up with a royalty settlement with the RIAA, threatening to use his staff to write the terms instead. Contacted by The Register this week, Sensenbrenner's office referered us to the House Judiciary Committee.

"It's not for us to say the rule was violated, but the House Ethics Committee should investigate, Ruskin told The Register. However, the Committee can only investigate the representative if asked to so by a fellow Congressman.

Boycott-RIAA and the Webcaster Alliance have produced an electronic form and urge music lovers to fax their Congressional representative so that an investigation can begin. You can find it here.

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