Massachusetts Candidate for Governor Ben Downing Accepted Subsidized Israel Trip From Pro-Israel Advocacy Group As A State Senator

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As a member of the Massachusetts legislature, then-state senator Ben Downing took a trip to Israel in 2015, but he didn’t pay for it.

Downing, a Democrat who lived in Pittsfield at the time, took a heavily subsidized trip to Israel from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, a pro-Israel group that lobbies on Beacon Hill.

Campaign finance records show that he used $1,040 worth of campaign funds to help pay the organization for the trip. He also spent $200 of campaign money at Adom Restaurant in Jerusalem in his trip, according to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Downing was one of nine state senators who received a subsidized trip from the organization. The actual cost of the trips, however, ranged from $5,000 to $6,000, as The Boston Globe pointed out at the time. That suggests the lobbying group covered about $4,000 to $5,000 worth of Downing’s trip. The trip took place from December 3 to December 13 in 2015.

A press release from Jewish Community Relations Council in October 2015 stated that the purpose of the trip was to provide state officials “with an in-depth look into the political, security, and economic challenges and successes facing Israeli society.” State legislators met with government officials, religious officials, academics, members of the media, and business leaders, according to the press release. Mass Peace Action also obtained a copy of the trip itinerary.

The pro-Israel group also noted in its press release that those who attended the trip would “gain new perspectives on modern day Israel” and “develop a nuanced understanding of the complex political and security challenges facing Israel.”

The group said that the money paid by the state senators for the trip was a registration fee, and that funding for the trip came from a local nonprofit organization, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

So why trip organizers they choose Downing?

Jeremy Burton, executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council, told New Boston Post by email:  “JCRC has been leading these study tours for over a decade, enabling our political leaders to bring back lessons from entrepreneurs, business executives, politicians, security experts, professors, doctors and nurses. Typically participants are those interested in potential synergies between the potential economic ties in hi-tech, healthcare, bio and climate adaptation.”

It was a trip that caused Massachusetts Peace Action, a pacifist organization in Massachusetts that is sympathetic to Palestine, to file a complaint with the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission in March of 2016. (The State Ethics Commission did not seek to punish the state legislators involved.)

The organization noted that members of the Massachusetts Legislature ordinarily cannot accept gifts valued at more than $50, although there is an exemption for travel. State officials can accept paid travel, according to the State Ethics Commission’s web site, if it “serves a legitimate public purpose.”

Jeff Klein, a board member for Massachusetts Peace Action, told NewBostonPost that his organization wants to see this loophole closed.

“We believe that allowing travel for legislators to be paid for by lobbyists is a glaring loophole in our state’s tough ethics rules,” Klein said in an email message. “Lobbyist-paid travel is by its nature a conflict of interest which bolsters the role of money in Massachusetts politics.” 

“For example, legislators have attended conferences on state gambling policy funded by gaming interests; they attended meetings on internet regulation paid for by Google and Facebook; they traveled to meetings on regulating cable TV funded by cable operators,” he continued. “The JCRC has organized frequent deluxe trips to Israel, valued at upwards of $6000 each, while it advocated for legislation punishing critics of Israel. In 2018, the JCRC lobbied for $500,000 in state funds to promote Israeli businesses in Massachusetts. $250,000 was approved by the state legislature.” 

Klein said the organization wants to ban “Any travel paid for by an organization which was registered as a lobbying organization (called a ‘client’ in state law) during the year in which the travel takes place.”

In 2018, as Klein points out, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed an Economic Development Bill into law that included $250,000 “for the facilitation and support of the Massachusetts-Israel Economic Connection operated by the New England Israel Business Council, Inc,” according to a press release from New England-Israel Business Council. It was one of many pieces of H.4732, An Act relative to economic development in the commonwealth. It largely provided local aid and infrastructure upgrades for towns across the state.

“What kind of ethics rule rightly forbids a legislator from taking a $50 meal paid for by a lobbyist but allows a lobbying organization to fund an expensive trip — so long as it is declared to be ‘in the public interest’?” he concluded. “Massachusetts Peace Action is working with state legislators for a bill to close that loophole.”

Asked about the objections raised by Massachusetts Peace Action, a spokesman for Jewish Community Relations Council responded by email, saying:  “JCRC has always complied with and will continue to comply with any and all ethics and disclosure rules.”

Downing could not be reached for comment last week.