Azerbaijan Secretly Funded Trips to Baku for 10 Congress Members
Wednesday, 13 May 2015 15:31
The state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan secretly funded an all-expenses-paid trip to a conference at Baku on the Caspian Sea in 2013 for 10 members of Congress and 32 staff members, according to a confidential ethics report obtained by The Washington Post. Three former top aides to President Obama appeared as speakers at the conference, The Washington Post reports.
Lawmakers and their staff members received hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of travel expenses, silk scarves, crystal tea sets and Azerbaijani rugs valued at $2,500 to $10,000, according to the ethics report. Airfare for the lawmakers and some of their spouses cost $112,899, travel invoices show.
The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as SOCAR, allegedly funneled $750,000 through nonprofit corporations based in the United States to conceal the source of the funding for the conference in the former Soviet nation, according to the 70-page report by the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent investigative arm of the House.
The report reflects the most extensive investigation undertaken by the ethics office, which was created seven years ago in response to a number of scandals on Capitol Hill, including lobbyist Jack Abramoff's illegal funding of lawmakers' trips.
The nonprofit corporations allegedly filed false statements with Congress swearing that they were sponsoring the conference. The findings have been referred to the House Committee on Ethics for investigation of possible violations of congressional rules and federal laws that bar foreign governments from trying to influence U.S. policy.
The conference, titled U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision for the Future, took place on May 28 and 29, 2013. During the previous year, SOCAR and several large energy companies sought exemptions for a $28 billion natural gas pipeline project in the Caspian Sea from U.S. economic sanctions being imposed on Iran.
The congressional investigators could not determine whether lawmakers used their official positions to benefit SOCAR or the pipeline project. They also found no evidence that the lawmakers or their staffers knew that the conference was being funded by a foreign government.
The investigators noted that the lawmakers relied on representations made to them by two Houston-based nonprofit corporations, theTurquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE) and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ). The lawmakers told investigators that they had obtained approval for the trip from the ethics committee.
The report said members of the House Ethics Committee wrote to the Office of Congressional Ethics requesting a halt to their investigation so that the matter could be taken up by their own committee. OCE officials declined the request.
The lawmakers who took the trip were Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and then-Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.).
Clarke is a member of the Ethics Committee.
Another lawmaker, Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), attended as part of a separate congressional delegation and his expenses were not paid by the conference, according to the report.