By Megan R. Wilson, Scott Wong
Members of the House who took a trip in 2013 that was secretly funded by the Azerbaijani government denied any wrongdoing on Wednesday, stressing that the travel was pre-approved by the Ethics Committee.
Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Ted Poe (R-Texas), Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) each released a statement defending their travel to the central Asian nation. “The House Committee on Ethics approved my travel request in writing prior to the trip, as is required for all House Members’ travel,” Bridenstine said in a lengthy statement.
Poe’s office said the lawmaker cooperated fully with an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), and that no evidence was found that the Texas Republican knew of the secret funding arrangement. The office of Meeks, meanwhile, said the congressman had “had no reason to believe that the trip was in any way inappropriate” and remains “confident that he complied with the law.”
The lawmakers scrambled to respond after The Washington Post obtained a 70-page report about the Azerbaijan trip complied by the OCE, an independent entity that investigates allegations of misconduct against lawmakers and their staffs. Ten lawmakers and 32 congressional aides accepted gifts and airfare to Azerbaijan that were secretly paid for by the country’s state-owned oil company, the OCE report said.
The expenses totaled more than $125,000, including airfare, and included gifts to lawmakers of crystal tea sets, silk scarves and Azerbaijani rugs that were valued at between $2,500 and $10,000 each. The money for the airfare and gifts, the ethics report said, was hidden through Texas-based nonprofits, which filed false statements saying they were paying for the trip. The money actually came from the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), according to the OCE report.
There are strict congressional rules limiting how foreign governments pay for the travel of lawmakers and their staff members, and how those expenses must be disclosed. The lawmakers and staffers in question were attending a 2013 conference in the capital city of Baku that dealt with improving U.S.-Azerbaijan relations. It came at a time when energy companies — including SOCAR — were seeking clearance for a pipeline that would need exemptions from U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran.
SOCAR released a statement on Wednesday saying the company “cooperated fully” with the law while shifting the onus back to lawmakers. “We are therefore disappointed that the compliance procedures may not have been followed correctly by the trip’s sponsors and we are unclear why these disclosures were omitted,” the company said in a statement.
SOCAR acknowledged it was involved in paying for the conference — which featured other sponsors such as BP, ConocoPhillips and Caspian Drilling — but it criticized “the Washington Post’s characterization … that SOCAR secretly played a role in the May 2013 conference in Baku.” “SOCAR will happily work to address this situation, and looks forward to sponsoring future events to introduce policymakers to the issues concerning this critical region,” the company said.
The Azerbaijani firm needed a congressional exemption from U.S. sanctions for a $28 billion pipeline because one of its business partners in the project was the National Iranian Oil Company. Language exempting the Shah Deniz project, as it was called, eventually ended up in the language of a new round of sanctions on Iran that passed the House shortly after the Baku conference.
The OCE report has been referred to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who became Ethics Committee chairman in January, told The Hill he could not comment on the matter. In his statement, Bridenstine said he made “good faith efforts” to comply with House ethics gift rules after the trip. While others did not disclose the gifts, the Oklahoman said he had two rugs appraised at $2,500 and $3,500, and he disclosed them in financial reports.
“Having sought advice from the Committee on Ethics, I determined the best course of action was to return the rugs and I did so,” Bridenstine said. The other lawmakers who traveled to Azerbaijan were Reps. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) and then-Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas).
Three former Obama administration officials — Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and David Plouffe — spoke at the conference. The OCE report says SOCAR funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to U.S.-based Azerbaijani nonprofits in order to hide the source of the funding for the lawmaker travel, according to the Post. Those nonprofits, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) — each based in Houston — helped organize the trips.
Around the time of the conference, SOCAR wired $750,000 to the Friends of Azerbaijan, the investigators found. The newspaper report says SOCAR’s legal counsel told the OCE the transfer constituted “dues” and were “intended to be used as funding for the Convention.” While OCE investigators found that the congressional delegation may not have known the true source of the trip’s funding, they wrote that “a person’s ignorance of the true source of travel expenses is not an absolute shield from liability for receipt of travel expenses from an improper source.”
“SOCAR and AFAZ provided gifts in the form of impermissible travel expenses to congressional travelers in violation of House rules, regulations and federal law,” the investigators said.
Source: THE HILL