Ethics Report Reveals Azerbaijan Secretly Bankrolled Trip for US Lawmakers
Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR dished out hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring 10 members of United States Congress and 32 staff members to a conference in Baku, according to an ethics report.
SOCAR appears to have picked up the check for upwards of US$ 750,000 to fund a 2013 conference titled U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision For The Future.
The Washington Post, which obtained the report, reports that some of the cash was used to purchase a litany of luxurious gifts, including crystal tea sets, Azeri carpets, and silk scarves for the politicians and their staff. Airfares alone totaled US$ 112,899, according to travel invoices.
Speakers at the conference included three former aides to President Obama.
Also speaking at the event was former representative Dan Burton, who is also chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance. Burton has previously penned an editorial for The Washington Times in praise of Azerbaijan, which met with some harsh criticism.
According to the Post, the report condemned the pricy jaunt, stating: “SOCAR and AFAZ provided gifts in the form of impermissible travel expenses to congressional travelers in violation of House rules, regulations, and federal law.”
Members of Congress involved in the trip said that they did not know the trip had been bankrolled by SOCAR, since the funding was channeled through two organizations based out of Texas. The report concludes that SOCAR used non-profits The Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE) and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) to conceal their involvement.
SOCAR has commented to say that their sponsorship was never secret and that it was the non-profits who were responsible for reporting their funding, not SOCAR.
Several lawmakers contacted by RFE/RL said that they were cooperating with the investigation. Bridenstine, a representative from Oklahoma, said he had returned some of the gifts he received, including two rugs collectively valued at US$ 6,000 (the legal limit for gifts is US$ 350).
He maintained that the trip was informative, adding: “Azerbaijan is uniquely positioned to diminish the effectiveness of Russia's territorial ambitions.”