House Ethics Panel Extends Review of Azerbaijan Trip, Slams Leaks

The committee is looking into whether a trip taken by nine lawmakers was secretly sponsored by a state-owned oil company.

U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) (L) speaks as Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) (R) listens during a news conference June 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Members of the Gulf Coast Congressional delegation called on the Obama Administration for an end to the moratorium on new deepwater drilling. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (National Journal)

The House Ethics Committee is extending its review of a trip nine lawmakers took to Azerbaijan that the state-owned oil company reportedly sponsored.

A committee statement issued Monday formally acknowledges that the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated the incident and the board voted to send it to the House Ethics Committee—which generally means board members have found a substantial reason to believe a violation could have occurred.

Yet the House Ethics Committee was quick to note that the referral and the panel's extension doesn't indicate a violation or "reflect any judgement on behalf of the Committee," according to the joint statement by Republican Chairman Charlie Dent and the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Linda Sanchez.

Before accepting the trip to the May 2013 conference titled "U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision for the Future," each of the nine members sought the committee's advice on whether they could attend. "In each case, the Committee reviewed the materials submitted by the Member and sponsor and approved the Member to accept the travel before the trip began," the committee stated Monday. "Subsequently, questions arose about whether the trips complied with the requirements for such travel."

The Washington Post first reported on the trip in May, as the newspaper obtained a copy of the 70-page report by OCE, the independent entity charged with reviewing allegations against House members, officers, and staffers.

According to The Post, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) allegedly funneled $750,000 through U.S.-based nonprofits to conceal the conference's funding source, and the nonprofits allegedly filed false statements to Congress saying they were the conference's sponsors.

The committee's statement named nine lawmakers who took the trip: Reps. Jim Bridenstine, Yvette Clarke, Danny Davis, Rubén Hinojosa, Sheila Jackson Lee, Leonard Lance, Michelle Lujan Grisham, Gregory Meeks, and Ted Poe.

Congressional investigators reportedly didn't find evidence that the lawmakers and their staff knew Azerbaijan was sponsoring the trip, nor could they determine that members have used their official position to help SOCAR, according to The Post. Many lawmakers—or their offices—that commented told the newspaper that they didn't realize the trip's true funding source and that they had first sought approval from the House Ethics Committee.

The investigators' report notes 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.

The House Ethics Committee's statement criticizes the release of the OCE's report to the media.

"Although the Committee is required to make public the materials transmitted to it by OCE in certain circumstances, the Committee did not authorize the public release of those materials," the panel said. "Such an unauthorized release may have violated House Rules and other standards of conduct. Moreover, the unauthorized disclosure of the materials has directly impacted the Committee's investigation, which began well before OCE transmitted the materials to the Committee."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously included a photo of former Rep. Trey Radel, rather than Rep. Ted Poe.