The FBI probed a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee that involved drinking, numerous GOP freshmen lawmakers, top leadership staff – and one nude member of Congress, according to more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses.
During a fact-finding congressional trip to the Holy Land last summer, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) took off his clothes and jumped into the sea, joining a number of members, their families and GOP staff during a night out in Israel, the sources told POLITICO. Other participants, including the daughter of another congressman, swam fully clothed while some lawmakers partially disrobed. More than 20 people took part in the late-night dip in the sea, according to sources who were participants in the trip.
“A year ago, my wife, Brooke, and I joined colleagues for dinner at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. After dinner I followed some Members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit,” Yoder said in a statement to POLITICO. “It is my greatest honor to represent the people of Kansas in Congress and [for] any embarrassment I have caused for my colleagues and constituents, I apologize.”
Travis Smith, Yoder’s chief of staff, told POLITICO “Neither Congressman Yoder, nor his staff, have been interviewed by the FBI.”
These GOP sources confirmed the following freshmen lawmakers also went swimming that night: Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) and his daughter; Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and his wife; Reps. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.). Many of the lawmakers who ventured into the lake said they did so because of the religious significance of the waters. Others said they were simply cooling off after a long day. Several privately admitted that alcohol may have played a role in why some of those present decided to jump in.
The Sea of Galilee, a Christian holy site, is where Jesus is said in the Bible to have walked on water.
The FBI looked into whether any inappropriate behavior occurred, but the interviews do not appear to have resulted in any formal allegations of wrongdoing.
But Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who was the senior most GOP lawmaker in Israel on the trip, was so upset about the antics that he rebuked the 30 lawmakers the morning after the Aug. 18, 2011, incident, saying they were distracting from the mission of the trip.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was also on the privately funded excursion, which means two of the three top Republicans were a part of this trip. Neither Cantor nor McCarthy went swimming that night, the sources said. Some of their staff did.
The account of that Aug. 2011 night in Israel was pieced together for the first time by POLITICO based on interviews with more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses, as well as public records of the trip.
A Cantor spokesman confirmed that the majority leader dressed down his Republican colleagues and that a staffer was later interviewed by FBI agents.
“Twelve months ago, [Cantor] dealt with this immediately and effectively to ensure such activities would not take place in the future,” said Doug Heye, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff.
Heye added: “Last year, a staffer was contacted by the Bureau [FBI], which had several questions, the staffer answered those questions and that appears to have been the end of it.”
The FBI’s questions focused on who went into the water that night, and whether there was any impropriety, according to multiple sources.
The American Israel Educational Foundation, a group related to AIPAC, the prominent pro-Israel advocacy group, sponsored the trip, which ran from Aug. 13 to Aug. 21, 2011. The trip cost AIEF upwards of $10,000 per person, according to records filed with the House Ethics Committee. More than 60 people took part in this AIEF trip.
These trips to the Holy Land are a rite of passage for members of Congress, as they visit the most sacred sites in the Jewish and Christian faiths – while their Israeli government hosts drive home the huge importance of U.S. support of Israel. That’s partially why, when the trip devolved into drinking and merrymaking, Cantor was livid.
In a Congress that has already sunk to new lows in public-opinion polls, and seen a bipartisan wave of scandals, this latest controversy could only further damage that image. Since the start of the 112th Congress, former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) resigned following the revelation that he was sending naked pictures of himself to women he met on the Internet. Former Rep. Christopher Lee (R-N.Y.) quickly left office after he was caught sending a topless photo of himself to an online acquaintance. Former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) stepped down after an “unwanted” sexual encounter with the daughter of a longtime friend. Former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) resigned after having an extramarital affair with the wife of an aide and then trying to cover it up.
On the Israel trip that included the late night swim, the group of lawmakers on Aug. 18 departed the posh David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem for Tiberias, a historic seaside town located on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. On the night in question, the GOP group checked into Scots Hotel, where rooms could run up to $1,000 each night. At 8:45 p.m., they headed to Decks, a popular restaurant located on the sea, according to an itinerary filed with the House Ethics Committee.
As dinner was winding down, Cantor and McCarthy left the restaurant, but the most of the other lawmakers and staff stayed behind, and the drinking continued, according to several sources who attended the dinner.
After what they describe as a “long, hot day,” more than 20 lawmakers and senior aides decided to jump into the sea, sources said. Some went in wearing all their clothes, although others partially undressed.
Yoder removed all his clothes, the only person to do so, according to multiple sources.
Senior aides also jumped into the Sea of Galilee. They include: Steve Stombres, Cantor’s chief of staff; Tim Berry, McCarthy’s chief of staff; Laena Fallon, Cantor’s former communications director and Emily Murray, McCarthy’s top health care aide. Kristi Way, a top Cantor staffer, was also on the trip.
Few offices responded to requests for on-the-record comment about the incident. However, numerous Republicans discussed what occurred on the condition of anonymity.
Some of those present took photographs of the group right after the late-night swim, sources said.
After the lawmakers and staff returned to the United States, FBI agents questioned congressional staff about the trip, specifically about what happened in Tiberias.
The FBI declined to comment on its probe, saying its standard policy was not to comment on such matters.
Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for AIEF, defended the group’s trip to Israel, saying they’re substantive and rigorous.
“As part of the trip, and after of day of meetings including with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, and briefings on Hezbollah and the border with Lebanon, trip participants traveled to the shore of the Sea of Galilee,” Dorton said in an emailed statement.
“This location made it possible to visit a series of Christian holy sites the next day. After dinner that evening, some in the group went swimming in the biblically significant sea. While AIEF has not been contacted by any government agency, we would certainly be willing to answer any questions or respond to any government inquiry on this event or the overall trip.”
The AIEF trips to Israel are a fixture of Washington. Both staff and lawmakers travel with the group to the Holy Land, and schedules are filled with boldfaced names.
On this trip, lawmakers met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his office and huddled with his top aide Ron Dermer over dinner at 28 King David, a posh banquet facility in Jerusalem. They ate breakfast separately with the Washington-based Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, and Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat. Israeli President Shimon Peres had the group gathered at his residence, and later that day, they met with Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader. Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador to Israel, had the large group to his home in Herzliya for dinner.
On the day of the swimming incident, they met with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, according to the itinerary filed with the House.