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“Thorough Review” of Baku? I Say Not True.

On July 31, 2015, the House Ethics Committee issued its report on the trip to Baku, Azerbaijan by some 42 House members and staffers. The primary purpose of the trip, which took place at the end of May 2013, was to attend a conference in Baku entitled “U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future.” The conference was organized by two American non-profit organizations, the Turquoise Counsel of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE) and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ), both of which were headed by a man named Kemal Oksuz.

All the congressional travelers sought and received the Committee’s prior approval for the trip, as has been required by House travel regulations since 2007. The Committee’s report contends that this approval was not a mere rubber stamp, stating that “[s]ince the House rule changes regarding  privately-sponsored travel in 2007, the Committee has conducted a thorough review of each proposed privately-sponsored trip.” 7-31-15 Rep. at 11 (emphasis added). These reviews are conducted by the Committee’s “nonpartisan, professional staff,” which “recommends changes where necessary to bring a proposed trip into compliance with relevant laws, rules, or regulations and, on occasion, informs House Members and employees that a proposed trip is not permissible.” Id.

Five different nonprofit organizations, including TCAE, “separately invited” particular members and staff to travel to Baku for the conference. 7-31-15 Rep. at 1. The other four were (1) the Council of Turkic American Associations (CTAA); (2) the Turkic American Federation of the Midwest (TAFM); (3) the Turkic American Alliance (TAA); and (4) the Turkic American Federation of the Southeast (TAFS). Each of these organizations completed a Primary Trip Sponsor Form stating that it was the sole sponsor with respect to its travelers and that it had “not accepted from any other source funds intended directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip.” Id. at 12.

The Committee states that its “staff reviewed these forms and asked Members and sponsors for additional information where necessary.” 7-31-15 Rep. at 12. No detail is provided on what additional information was asked for or received. However, it is implied that little information was needed with regard to funding because “[n]othing in those submissions gave the Committee reason to doubt the truth or accuracy of the purported sponsors’ representations regarding the sources of the Trips’ funding.” Id. at 2.

At the time the Committee issued its report, it declined to release the longer and more detailed review by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). See 7-31-15 Rep. at 13-16. On October 7, however, the OCE Board decided to release the results of its review, including its report and findings, along with more than 1,000 pages of exhibits. I had requested the release of this material (though I doubt this had any influence on the Board’s decision) in part to see what kind of “thorough review” the Committee did before approving the Baku trip.

The only evidence I have found of the Committee asking about the funding of the trip is in Exhibit 74 of the OCE documents. This exhibit includes a March 13, 2013 email from Temar Nedzar, counsel to the Ethics Committee, to Mr. Oksuz. Ms. Nedzar states that she is conducting a “preliminary review” of the trip and asks that Oksuz:

Please confirm that TCAE will be paying for all trip expenses using its general funds. If TCAE received additional outside funding, including grant funding or any other support, intended to subsidize expenses for this trip, or congressional travel in general, we would need to get details on who those funders/donors are, the terms of the grant as it relates to congressional travel, and their role in helping to organize the trip.

On March 17, Oksuz responded:

Yes, TCAE will be paying for all trip expenses using its general funds. TCAE never receives any additional outside funding to subsidize expenses for the trips. Our donors are our members: individual and corporate members. Moreover, we receive donations from Turkish and Turkic American society in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and more.

Unfortunately, this response was a tad misleading. In fact, the money to pay for the congressional travel sponsored by TCAE, as well as for the travel that would ostensibly be sponsored by the other four nonprofits, came from large payments that were received by TCAE and AFAZ right before the Baku conference.  The funds were provided by SOCAR, the state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan, and by an Azeri consulting company with ties to SOCAR. 7-31-15 Rep. at 21; OCE Rep. at 22 ¶ 59. The payments were made specifically for the Baku conference, including for the expenses involved in providing transportation and accommodations for the congressional travelers and other conference attendees from the U.S. 7-31-15 Rep. at 22; OCE Rep. at 24-28 ¶¶ 64-75. Neither TCAE nor AFAZ had “general funds” to pay for the congressional travel absent this financial support from SOCAR. 7-31-15 Rep. at 21.

It should be noted that the March 2013 email exchange between the Ethics Committee and Oksuz took place before there was any formal request to the Committee for approval of the trips. See 7-31-15 Rep. at 12 (Committee received the approval requests in April and May 2103). It is entirely possible, therefore, that the Committee was not yet aware that there would be other trip sponsors besides TCAE. It also may not have known the number of travelers that would be involved in the trip. Depending on its state of knowledge regarding the Baku conference and other trip details, the Committee may have had little or no reason to question Oksuz’s representations at that time.

By April or early May, however, the Committee learned that 42 members and staff had been “separately invited” to travel to Baku at the same time by five different nonprofit organizations. At this point it should have been obvious that someone was coordinating the trips, the conference, and the various meetings and events that the members and staff would be attending in Baku. It is hard to see how the Committee could conduct a “thorough review” of these trips without asking any questions about these arrangements and the relationships among the trip sponsors, the conference organizers and the Azeri government.

Did the Committee ask follow up questions to any of the other four nonprofits? The head of TAFM, Suleyman Turhan, told OCE in his interview:

Mr. Ashmawy: Did the committee on ethics ask you any questions beyond the forms?

Witness: I think this was pretty much, uh maybe sometimes I get calls from the committee on ethics if there was a meeting that they didn’t understand what that was meeting was for. They would ask me to give more information so, but I don’t remember specifically if they called me and asked you know any important information about the trip.

Mr. Ashmawy: Did they ask you to clarify whether in fact you were the sponsor?

Witness: No, they didn’t? I don’t remember them asking me anything about it.

Mr. Ashmawy: Did they ask you any—for any proof that you had sufficient funds to sponsor?

Witness: No.

OCE Ex. 76, at 15-9180__00939. Given that the leaders of the four nonprofits readily admitted to OCE that they did not have the funds to cover the expenses of the travelers they sponsored, it probably would not have taken much probing for the Ethics Committee to discover that the funding was coming from elsewhere.

The Committee, as noted earlier, says it had no “reason to doubt” the forms submitted with regard to the sources of the funding. In what is perhaps an elaboration of this claim, it later states:

While there were some similarities between the 42 Primary Trip Sponsor Forms submitted to the Committee, they were not all identical. For example, each sponsor submitted different itineraries for their trips. All of the itineraries included a visit to the “U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for Future” conference (the Conference). One of the sponsors, TCAE, was also listed as one of two organizers for the Conference. However, the Conference was not the only item on the different itineraries. Even on the days of the Conference, and on Trips sponsored by TCAE, the House travelers were scheduled both to attend portions of the Conference but also to participate in numerous non-Conference activities, such as meetings with the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, various Azeri government officials, and officials from the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

7-31-15 Rep. at 12.

It is not clear to me what the Committee is driving at here. If it is suggesting that the sponsors appeared to be acting entirely independently of one another, this is ridiculous. Common sense says that five different nonprofits did not independently decide to bring congressional attendees to the same conference half a world away. Moreover, these were not unrelated entities, but “sister organizations,” or, as one witness thematically put it, part of a “tapestry of regional organizations.” See OCE Exhibit 26 at 15-9180_00486; OCE Exhibit 76 at 15-9190_00915; OCE Exhibit 97 at 15-9180_01128-30; OCE Exhibit 14 at 15-9180_00220. The Committee certainly knew or should have known they were working together.

This was evident even on the face of the documentation submitted. Although there were differences among the itineraries, it was plain that they were not prepared independently. For example, different sponsors included the exact same odd phrase, “In case of any inconvenience, the best substitutes will be visited in place of the honorable hosts,” in their itineraries. Compare TAA Itinerary with OCE Exhibit 1 (TCAE Itinerary) and OCE Exhibit 2 (CTAA Itinerary). Coincidence? I think not.

Perhaps the Committee is making a different point, though. Perhaps it is suggesting that the congressional travel and the conference did not appear to be so intimately linked as to imply they were jointly organized or funded.  But this is an odd point to make given that the Committee knew that Oksuz (through TCAE and AFAZ) was both organizing the conference and sponsoring at least some of the congressional travelers. The congressional travelers were not just casual attendees, either. All of the members, whether sponsored by TCAE or one of the other nonprofits, were listed as speakers on the conference website. OCE Exhibit 9 at 15-9180_00044 & 15-9180_00047.

The Committee’s attempt to draw a distinction between activities that took place at the main conference site (the “Haydar Aliyev Cultural Center”) and those that took place elsewhere also seems highly artificial. Both types of activities (with the exception of the occasional sightseeing opportunity) fell within the stated purpose of the conference, which was to bring together “government officials, legislators, and leading academic and experts” to discuss “shared strategic interests of the United States and Azerbaijan,” particularly with respect to energy matters. See OCE Rep. at 13 ¶20.

It is particularly ironic that the Committee identifies briefings at SOCAR as non-conference activities since SOCAR’s role as  principal sponsor of the conference was not a secret and could have been ascertained before the conference by visiting the conference website. See OCE Rep. 17 ¶¶34-35; OCE Exhibit 9. Oksuz chose not to divulge to the Committee the payments he received from SOCAR, but the Committee certainly could have asked him and the other trip sponsors what funding SOCAR was providing to the conference and whether any of that money was being used for congressional travel.

Finally, the most perplexing part of the Committee report is its assertion that SOCAR’s financial support of the conference and the congressional travel may have been permissible under House travel regulations. The Committee explains “entities that provide financial support for an event, in exchange for a tangible benefit—such as advertising or named sponsorship at an event—are not ‘sponsors’ for purposes of the Travel Regulations, if the event is held without regard to congressional participation.” 7-31-15 Rep. at 13 (emphasis added). The Committee contends that SOCAR (and its consultant) received a tangible benefit from its support of the conference through “named sponsorship rights and advertising.” Id. at 22. As for the requirement that the event be without regard to congressional participation, the Committee notes:

Congressional travelers made up only 42 of the 350 Conference attendees who traveled to Azerbaijan. And there is no direct evidence that the Conference would not have occurred without, or was otherwise dependent upon, the attendance of one or more House Members or employees.

Id.

Let’s review for a moment. It is clear that the purpose of the conference was to promote the interests of the Azerbaijan government, including SOCAR, by bringing an influential and select group of Americans to Baku for the purpose of meeting with top Azeri officials. As I noted in an earlier post, the conference was described as “among the biggest concentrations of American political star power ever seen in the Caucasus.” Bringing sitting federal legislators was clearly an important part of this strategy, as evidenced by the prominent role they were given at the conference and Oksuz’s eagerness to make sure they attended. See, e.g., OCE Rep. at 68 n. 508 & Exhibit 114 (3-25-13 email from Oksuz to Representative Poe, saying “I need you at the Annual US-Azerbaijan Convention”).

Oksuz was in essence a lobbyist for SOCAR and the Government of Azerbaijan with “deep relationships throughout the highest levels of Baku,” and he used the conference to demonstrate his access to American policymakers. See OCE Rep. at 23, 48 ¶¶62 & 153; OCE Exhibit 14. SOCAR was not a third party merely paying for advertising space at the conference, but was intimately involved in all of the arrangements:

SOCAR planned, organized, and financed the Convention in the role of a trip sponsor for travel to Baku. SOCAR helped process visas, reviewed itineraries of attendees, sought corporate contributions for Convention funding, used a consulting company to provide organizational support, assisted in arranging hotels, and engaged in continuous communications with Kemal Oksuz.

OCE Rep. at 63-64 ¶ 223.

Under these circumstances, it is astonishing that the Committee would suggest that SOCAR might not qualify as a trip sponsor because it was receiving a “tangible benefit” and the conference may have been organized “without regard to congressional participation.” The “tangible benefit” that SOCAR received was access to and the opportunity to influence American policymakers, which is precisely what the House travel regulations are supposed to regulate.

It is also hard to see how the Committee could conclude that the conference was held “without regard to congressional participation.” As noted, the participation of members was not an incidental part of the conference. They were given prominent speaking roles and featured in the conference materials. Oksuz made a point of reporting the list of members attending to SOCAR, which passed it on to top Azeri government officials. OCE Rep. at 32 ¶87 & OCE Exhibits 43-44.

As the Committee suggests, of course, the conference was not designed solely to influence members and staff. There were many state legislators, other state and local officials, former elected officials and members of the Obama administration, and a number of others. If this fact alone, combined with the possibility that the conference might have been held even in the absence of congressional attendance, makes it an event “without regard to congressional participation,” this would seem to leave a rather large loophole in the travel regulations.

In any event, the trip sponsor form (Question 15) specifically asks the sponsor to certify whether “the trip involves events that are arranged specifically with regard to congressional participation.” If the answer is no, the sponsor is to check box a. If the answer is yes, box b is to be checked and certain additional information provided. The form is clear that only one box should be checked.

TCAE checked box b, indicating that the trip involved events “arranged specifically with regard to congressional participation.” So did TAFS. CTAA, on the other hand, checked both boxes a and b, contrary to the instructions. TAMF checked only box a. And, just to make things interesting, TAA checked box a but also filled out the information that is only requested if box b is checked.

At a minimum, a “thorough review” would have detected these discrepancies and made some inquiry as to the reasons for them. There is no evidence of any such inquiry. The fact that CTAA, for example, was not required to amend its incorrect answer to Question 15 suggests that no one on the Committee paid much attention to the answers at all.

If this was a “thorough review,” I would hate to see a cursory one.

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