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Lawmakers turned over gifts after secretly funded trip to Azerbaijan

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Lawmakers who took a trip secretly funded by the government of Azerbaijan turned over jade earrings, tea sets, silk scarves, woven rugs and other gifts to the government after a watchdog report called the trip improper.

The list of gifts returned to the General Services Administration (GSA), which was obtained by The Hill through a Freedom of Information Act request, fills in more details about the trip to a 2013 conference in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku.

{mosads}In all, nine current member of Congress and 32 staff members attended the conference, each receiving thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts, according to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Some of the lawmakers also went to Turkey after the conference in Baku and received additional gifts on that stop.

The OCE report on the trip was submitted to the House Ethics Committee on May 8, 2015, but was leaked to The Washington Post, which revealed the details of the report days later. 

The watchdog said Texas-based nonprofits filed false statements saying they were paying for the trip, when, in reality, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as Socar, helped fund the conference and trips by funneling $750,000 to the nonprofit corporations.

Socar has denied all wrongdoing and said the nonprofit involved in helping lawmakers make arrangements, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan, failed to follow disclosure rules.

Both the OCE and House Ethics Committee found lawmakers and aides had no way of knowing the trip was being funded improperly.

Roughly a week before the House Ethics Committee released its report detailing its findings in July 2015, members of Congress who had taken the trip began returning the gifts they had received.

Reps. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) and Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) all turned over gifts to the House clerk, who then handed them over to the GSA in October 2015, according to records obtained by The Hill.

Other gifts from the Azerbaijan trip that were returned include paperweights, pens, leather diaries, a DVD box set about the president of Azerbaijan and two rugs, one large and one small. Multiple lawmakers reported that the small rug appeared in their hotel rooms during the conference. 

In most cases, when a House member accepts a gift not allowed by ethics rules, they must either pay “fair market value” for it or return it to the person or entity that gave it to them. A member can also give gifts to the House clerk, who then transfers it to the GSA for disposal or sale.

Ethics rules for members of Congress say members may, in some cases, accept gifts valued at less than $50. Gifts from foreign governments and international organizations are allowed if they are valued at less than $350. 

Several members told the OCE that they believed the gifts had fallen below those reporting thresholds. 

The GSA spreadsheet of the gifts provided to The Hill lists Oct. 13 and Oct. 20 as the dates the gifts were received by the agency, though the House clerk apparently received them from members’ offices months earlier. 

Lujan Grisham, whose fiancé had  gone on the trip to Azerbaijan and Turkey with her, told the OCE during the investigations that many of the gifts she received were kept in her office. The earrings, a crystal tea set and a large rug were at her home in Washington, the report said, and another tea set was kept at her home in New Mexico.

The congresswoman ultimately surrendered 34 items to the House clerk, by far the most of any member, GSA records show. While her office said the gifts were given to the clerk on July 23, 2015, they did not arrive at the GSA until Oct. 13 and Oct. 20.

Those items included three briefcases, two decorative plates, paperweights, multiple sets of teacups, a DVD box set about the president of Azerbaijan, earrings, a map of Azerbaijan, a scarf, leather notebooks and two bottles of cologne.

According to the OCE report, Bridenstine had the two rugs he was given appraised and was told they had a value of $3,500 and $2,500. His chief of staff then found the source of the rugs and returned them to the donor in 2013.

Bridenstine gave his six-cup tea set to the House clerk for disposal on July 17 last year, his office told The Hill. The OCE report says he looked up the cups online, finding them to be worth $84.99. The GSA did not receive them from the House Clerk until Oct. 13, records show. 

The GSA received a large rug from Hinojosa and, from Clarke, a small rug and a purple silk scarf.

Two additional members — Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.) — donated rugs they had received on the trip to a charity and a local school in his district, respectively, their offices told The Hill. The House Ethics Committee approved the donations because of the  entities’ tax statuses. Davis also gave a leather briefcase from the trip to a volunteer in his office.

Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Fla.) also went on the trip but did not talk to the OCE during the investigation, so it is not known what gifts they received. Lance’s office told The Hill that the congressman did not take any gifts.

Tags Jim Bridenstine Sheila Jackson Lee Ted Poe
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