May 14, 2015 - 10:04 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - The state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan secretly funded an all-expenses-paid trip to a conference in Baku, on the Caspian Sea, in 2013 for 10 members of Congress and 32 staff members, according to a confidential ethics report obtained by The Washington Post.
Three former top aides to President Obama appeared as speakers at the event.
Lawmakers and their staff members received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of travel expenses, silk scarves, crystal tea sets and Azerbaijani rugs valued at $2,500 to $10,000, according to the ethics report. Airfare for the lawmakers and some of their spouses cost $112,899, travel invoices show, according to The Washington Post.
The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as SOCAR, allegedly funneled $750,000 through nonprofit corporations based in the United States to conceal the source of the funding for the conference in the former Soviet republic, according to the 70-page report by the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent investigative arm of the House.
The report reflects the most extensive investigation undertaken by the ethics office, which was created seven years ago in response to a number of scandals on Capitol Hill, including lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s illegal funding of lawmakers’ trips.
The nonprofit corporations allegedly filed false statements with Congress swearing that they were sponsoring the conference. The findings have been referred to the House Ethics Committee for investigation of possible violations of congressional rules and federal laws that bar foreign governments from trying to influence U.S. policy.
SOCAR released a statement saying that its support of the conference was no secret and blaming the nonprofits for not filing the proper disclosures.
“At no time did SOCAR hide from the attendees of the conference our involvement,” the statement said. “SOCAR has never been under investigation in this matter because the responsibility for disclosing SOCAR’s financial support for the conference fell to those who were the trip’s sponsors.
“We have cooperated fully. We are therefore disappointed that the compliance procedures may not have been followed correctly by the trip’s sponsors and we are unclear why these disclosures were omitted.”
Tom Rust, chief counsel and staff director for the Ethics Committee, and Kelly Brewington, a spokeswoman for the Office of Congressional Ethics, declined to comment, The Washington Post says.
The conference, titled “U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision for the Future,” took place on May 28 and 29, 2013. During the previous year, SOCAR and several large energy companies sought exemptions for a $28 billion natural gas pipeline project in the Caspian Sea from U.S. economic sanctions being imposed on Iran.
The congressional investigators could not determine whether lawmakers used their official positions to benefit SOCAR or the pipeline project. They also found no evidence that the lawmakers or their staff members knew that the conference was being funded by a foreign government.
The investigators noted that the lawmakers relied on representations made to them by two Houston-based nonprofit corporations, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE) and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ). The lawmakers told investigators that they had obtained approval for the trip from the Ethics Committee.
The report said members of the ethics panel wrote to the Office of Congressional Ethics requesting a halt to the investigation so that the matter could be taken up by their own committee. OCE officials declined the request. A government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter said OCE feared that the ethics panel, which has a reputation among watchdog groups for shielding lawmakers from embarrassing disclosures, would not take any meaningful action.