WASHINGTON — In the past decade, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Tulsa has made at least 20 trips to Africa as part of a mission that he frequently describes in religious terms.
Inhofe’s African trips have cost taxpayers more than $187,000 since 1999, according to a review of expenses Inhofe and staff members have submitted through the Armed Services Committee. Some of the trips have been taken on military planes that cost thousands of dollars an hour to operate. The military does not disclose the cost of flying members of Congress to their destinations. The trips — which Inhofe has referred to publicly as "a Jesus thing” — have spanned the continent, though the senator has spent most of his time in a few countries, including Uganda and Ethiopia. Early this month, he and three U.S. House members visited both of those countries to talk to their leaders about AIDS. Since his first trip in 1998, Inhofe has visited the continent an average of twice a year. In 2006, he went to Uganda and Ethiopia in March and returned in May. He has said that he has probably visited the continent more than any U.S. senator in history. He always takes staff members. He typically travels with other lawmakers, mostly conservative Republicans, and sometimes takes his wife. Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said he personally paid for his first trip. But since 1999, his travel has been funded by taxpayers, with a portion being paid through the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Inhofe is a senior member. Many lawmakers travel abroad at taxpayer expense, typically on "fact-finding” trips. Inhofe said his work in Africa focuses on humanitarian, national security and economic matters. He said he has helped get food to severely malnourished children in Ethiopia, brought leaders together to resolve disputes, helped get military training for some African countries’ forces, and focused attention in Congress on corrupt regimes and atrocities. He has also used the official travel for fellowship activities related to the low-profile religious organization that puts on the National Prayer Breakfast. "I’m guilty of two things,” Inhofe said in a recent interview. "I’m a Jesus guy, and I have a heart for Africa.”
‘Trying to recruit’For trips in which Inhofe reported transportation costs, the airfare ranged from $4,727 to go to Ghana, Kenya and Benin in 2002 to $7,200 to go to Ethiopia, Uganda and Italy in 2006. Inhofe has also asked other lawmakers to accompany him on trips. The Oklahoman did not try to tally all of the travel costs of the House members or other senators who accompanied him. "I’m trying to recruit people to have an interest in Africa,” Inhofe said. "I’m trying to get members of the House and Senate to understand how valuable Africa is.” Inhofe has said that he has been asked by the military and the State Department to travel to Africa. The State Department declined to respond to questions about Inhofe’s travels, referring questions to Inhofe’s office. The senator’s office provided copies of letters to Inhofe from the head of the Defense Department’s African command. Those letters suggested countries Inhofe might visit and topics he might discuss but did not request that the senator travel to Africa, and they appeared to have been written after Inhofe had already decided to make a trip.
‘A good friend of Africa and Uganda’Inhofe said the State Department rotated employees too often to establish the kind "intimate relationships” he had been able to build. And, he said, "Nobody in Congress understands or cares about Africa.” Chairmen of the Senate and House foreign relations subcommittees on Africa declined to respond to Inhofe’s comment about Congress’ alleged lack of interest in the continent. Charles Ssentongo, deputy chief of mission at the Ugandan Embassy in Washington, said many members of Congress have been supportive of Africa.
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Ex-missionary is on staffNot long after Sen. Jim Inhofe became interested in Africa, he hired a former African missionary for the Assemblies of God as his director of African affairs. Mark Powers, who lives in Virginia, still works for the Assemblies of God general council while also serving part time on the senator’s staff. When he was first hired in 2001, Powers was paid about $5,000 a year through the senator’s office. He is now paid $15,000 a year. Powers accompanies the senator on his frequent trips to Africa. Matt Dempsey, Inhofe’s communications director, said Powers worked for the Assemblies of God in several African nations before his employment with Inhofe. "Mark’s proven understanding and knowledge of Africa is exactly the reason Mark was hired,” Dempsey said. "Senator Inhofe is well aware that Mark continues to remain active in his church and has made sure a clear line exists between Mark’s work in the Senate and Mark’s work for his church.” Chris Casteel, Washington Bureau