US lawmakers violated laws, taking trips to Azerbaijan and Turkey

By Harut Sassounian
The California Courier

In a lengthy article titled, “10 members of Congress took trip secretly funded by foreign government,” The Washington Post disclosed last week the scandalous details of an all-expenses paid trip to a conference in Azerbaijan by 10 lawmakers and 32 staff members in 2013. Former top aides to Pres. Obama — Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and David Plough – also attended the conference as guest speakers.

The organizer of the international oil gathering in Baku, SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, funneled $750,000 through two U.S. nonprofit organizations “to conceal the source of the funding” for the trip, according to a confidential Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) report obtained by The Washington Post. Another $750,000 was contributed by British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips and KBR for airfare, hotel and gifts.

The newspaper also reported that “shortly before the May 28-29, 2013 conference, SOCAR and several large energy companies [including the National Iranian Oil Company] sought exemptions for a $28 billion natural gas pipeline in the Caspian Sea from U.S. economic sanctions being imposed on Iran.” In fact, a month before the conference, SOCAR established the nonprofit Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) in Houston by transferring $750,000. The second nonprofit involved in the scheme, also based in Houston, was the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE). Both nonprofits, headed by Kemal Oksuz, shared the same Houston address. Congress approved several bills sanctioning Iran, while exempting the SOCAR project. Pres. Obama then signed these bills into law.

The ten members of Congress who went on the Baku junket were: Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Danny Davis (D-IL), Michelle Grisham (D- NM), Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Ted Poe (R-TX), and Steve Stockman (R-TX).

Ethics investigators disclosed that these lawmakers, accompanied by spouses and fiancés, received several gifts, including “crystal tea sets, briefcases, silk scarves, turquoise earrings, gold-painted plates and Azerbaijani rugs…. All lawmakers received at least one rug and some got two, one prayer-size and one area rug. Many staff members also received rugs.”

To justify their illegal or improper actions, some of these lawmakers made ridiculous statements to congressional investigators:

— Cong. Davis stated that during the Baku conference he “received one rug which was delivered to his hotel room.” He said he was thinking about donating the rug to a museum or charity!

— Cong. Hinojosa claimed: “I received souvenirs of what I believed to be of minimal value and in compliance with the House Gift rule.”

— Ladan Ahmadi, spokeswoman for Rep. Meeks, stated that the Congressman “understood the rug to be a permissible courtesy gift.”

— A senior staff member of Rep. Lance told The Washington Post that the Congressman “returned the one rug he received after he got back to Washington. The staff member also said Lance received a pair of earrings and reimbursed the nonprofit group that helped organize the conference $100 immediately upon returning to New Jersey.”

— Cong. Grisham told ethics investigators that she did not disclose the rugs because she did not think they were particularly valuable. She also thought they were unattractive: “It’s not a carpet I would have purchased.”

— Cong. Bridenstine was the only lawmaker who disclosed the rugs on his financial report. “He had them appraised: the smaller rug at $2,500 and the larger at $3,500.”

Quoting from the ethics report, The Washington Post revealed that Reps. Clarke, Grisham, Hinojosa, Lance, and their staff members also “took side trips to Turkey, traveling to Istanbul, Ankara or both…. The Bosphorus Atlantic Cultural Association of Friendship and Cooperation, a Turkish nonprofit organization, covered the expenses, the report said. The lawmakers did not disclose the role of that nonprofit.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics concluded that “SOCAR and AFAZ provided gifts in the form of impermissible travel expenses to congressional travelers in violation of House rules, regulations and federal law,” while “members of Congress who traveled to Turkey accepted payment of travel expenses from impermissible sources, resulting in an impermissible gift, in violation of House rules and regulations.” Furthermore, the investigators reported that five nonprofits affiliated with the Azerbaijani government asserted that they sponsored the conference, filing sworn statements with the Ethics Committee in April and May 2013. “The five sponsoring organizations contributed no funding for the congressional travel in spite of false affirmations on the forms they submitted to the Committee on Ethics.” The Washington Post reported that these findings have been referred to the House Ethics Committee for investigation of possible violation of congressional rules and federal laws that bar foreign governments from trying to influence U.S. policy.

It is deeply troubling that members of Congress are willing to sell their souls to corrupt Azerbaijani and Turkish entities for a free rug!