Lawmakers allegedly traveled to and attended a conference in Azerbaijan with the help of its oil company. They received gifts, such as rugs that one member described as the length of a sofa, and some didn’t think they were “particularly expensive.” And some were lucky enough to receive a DVD box set about the Azerbaijani president.
Those are just some of the details from the Office of Congressional Ethics’ report about a controversial May 2013 trip to Azerbaijan taken by the nine lawmakers, all of whom were subsequently cleared by the House Ethics Committee. The report by the House’s independent investigative arm was released Wednesday when OCE bucked the ethics panel’s decision to refrain from publicly disclosing the documents.
National Journal pulled out some details, some which confirm a Washington Post article on the trip, as the newspaper first reported details of the investigation; some that hadn’t previously been in the public eye; and others that are just, well, interesting. All information is based off OCE’s findings:
—Azerbaijan’s oil company likely helped fund, plan and organize a conference members attended and their travel. Post-travel, the trip’s funding sources came under question. Some nonprofits were listed as the trip’s primary sponsors, but told OCE that they didn’t pay for the members to go to Azerbaijan. Rather, most of the travel and conference costs were funded by undisclosed entities, which include the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, or SOCAR.
—SOCAR sponsored the members’ travel visas. OCE states that “it appears SOCAR discouraged attendees from trying to obtain a visa from the Embassy of Azerbaijan in Washington, D.C.”
—There is no evidence that the members knew of the trip’s impermissible sponsors and organizers. Rather, the members took a good-faith approach, relying on how the sources represented themselves. Yet, OCE notes that ignorance doesn’t necessarily beget innocence: “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.”
—The case has a precedent, of sorts. Members were required to refund the costs of a trip taken to attend Carib News Foundation Multinational Business Conferences in 2007 and 2008. Those that didn’t know the true source of funding hadn’t violated any House rule, but they ended up having to pay for the trips.
—Members received gifts. The receipt of gifts is highly regulated under House rules. OCE’s review showed that every member received rugs and some got even more (including a six-piece crystal tea set, a silk scarf, and a DVD box set about the Azerbaijani president.)
—Some members also went to Turkey on the dime of a sponsor that wasn’t disclosed on any of the pretravel forms submitted to the House Ethics Committee—and this isn’t the first time that’s happened. The same nonprofits listed as sponsors for the Azerbaijan trip were also named as funding the trip to Turkey. OCE found that a Turkish organization, called Bosphorus Atlantic Cultural Association of Friendship and Cooperation, or BAKIAD, reportedly covered the cost of congressional travel in Turkey. And it may have done so for members for years.
—OCE has a lot of questions for a man named Kemal Oksuz. He declined to cooperate with the nonpartisan entity and is listed many times in the report. He was allegedly the leader of two organizations that coordinated with SOCAR, Azerbaijan, and the trip’s sponsors.
—OCE wasn’t able to verify the source of the gifts—and that’s a problem. For the office to determine if the gifts were acceptable, knowing the source is key. And many members reportedly kept these gifts without knowing exactly who they were from, according to OCE.
Lauren Fox contributed to this article
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