Ethics office: Lawmakers took trip secretly paid for by foreign government

Ethics office: Lawmakers took trip secretly paid for by foreign government
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Ten members of Congress and their aides accepted gifts and airfare to Azerbaijan that were secretly paid for by that country’s state-owned oil company, according to a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) obtained by The Washington Post.

Expenses totaled more than $125,000 including airfare, according to the report. The lawmakers were lavished with gifts ranging from crystal tea sets, silk scarves and Azerbaijani rugs that were valued at between $2,500 and $10,000 each.

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The funding for the airfare and gifts was hidden through Texas-based nonprofits, according to the report, which filed false statements saying they were paying for the trip. The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as SOCAR, allegedly paid the expenses.

The 10 lawmakers and 32 staffers were attending a 2013 conference in Baku that dealt with improving U.S.-Azerbaijan relations.

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Three former Obama officials — Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and David Plouffe — spoke at the conference.

The report from the independent investigative panel created in 2008 was sent to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation.

The OCE declined to comment about the investigation or the Washington Post report.
 
Energy companies, including SOCAR, had sought exemptions from U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran so they could operate a massive natural gas pipeline project in the region.

The lawmakers reportedly said they had received permission to take the trip from the House Ethics Committee. There are strict congressional rules limiting how foreign governments pay for the travel of lawmakers and their staff, and how those expenses must be disclosed.

The OCE report says SOCAR paid for the trips by secretly giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to U.S.-based Azerbaijani nonprofits in order to hide the source of the funding, according to the Post

Those nonprofits, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE) 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 AFAZ, the investigators found. The Post report says SOCAR’s legal counsel told OCE the transfer constituted “dues” and were “intended to be used as funding for the Convention.”

While 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,” according to the Post.

“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.

This story was updated at 5:53 p.m.