Let’s say you are a Member of Congress who is approached by an obscure nonprofit organization about accepting an all-expense-paid trip to Baku, Azerbaijan during an upcoming recess. (Baku is on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, in case you need a map to locate it, which you probably do). The purpose of the trip is to attend a conference called the US-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision for the Future.
A brief glance at the itinerary for this event leaves little doubt it enjoys the official sanction of the Azerbaijan government. You and your colleagues will be meeting with the President of Azerbaijan himself, as well as the Speaker of Parliament, and will receive briefings from government agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and SOCAR, the state-owned oil company. These discussions will cover US-Azerbaijan relations, regional security challenges posed by Russia and Iran (between which nations Azerbaijan has the misfortune to be sandwiched), and matters relating to the construction of oil pipelines and energy security generally.
You decide, reasonably enough, that this looks like an interesting and educational trip that will help you gain a deeper understanding of these important matters on which you make policy. So you instruct your staff to work with the nonprofit organization, which we will call the “Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians” (TCAE), to submit the required forms and information to the House Ethics Committee, which then pre-approves the proposed trip pursuant to House Rule XXV, clause 5(d)(2).
And off you go, along with ten of your House colleagues, 32 staffers, 75 state legislators, and former elected officials such as Bill Richardson, Dick Lugar and Dan Burton. A journalist attending the conference describes it as “among the biggest concentrations of American political star power ever seen in the Caucasus,” which admittedly may be akin to boasting of the best gas station sushi in the state of Oklahoma.
The trip goes fine. You attend the scheduled events, try not to mispronounce too many Azeri names, and maybe even sneak in a little sightseeing in Baku’s Old City. You listen to a lot of speeches, including from former Obama administration officials David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs and Jim Messina. They mostly repeat the same pablum you could have heard in DC, though Gibbs does recount an amusing anecdote about then-Senator Obama haggling with a local rug merchant during a 2005 CODEL to Baku.
But no sooner than you have returned to the US, visions of lamb shish kebob still dancing in your head, the carping starts. At first it is largely directed at Plouffe, Gibbs and Messina, who received “five-figure checks” for their remarks at the Baku conference and are perceived as cashing in on their government service. (Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, the perpetual Dr. Bellows in pursuit of Major Nelson, says the Azeri government is “trying to buy favors with those who are well connected with the U.S. government” and suggests the three were “letting themselves be used as lobbyists.”) There is also criticism of the Baku conference as a whitewash of Azerbaijan’s less than stellar record on human rights and democracy.
The criticism hits closer to home, though, when it appears that your trip may not have complied with the rules regulating congressional travel after all. Although TCAE and other nonprofit organizations purported to be the sole source of funds for the congressional trips, reports emerge (see here and here) suggesting that the money actually came from other sources, particularly SOCAR. These allegations, which come out about the time you are filing your post-travel disclosure, are followed a year later by this Houston Chronicle article, which suggest congressional travelers to the Baku conference should have known that the conference was being funded by SOCAR and other oil companies based on banners and other conference materials that prominently identified these corporate sponsors.
Things go down hill from there. The Office of Congressional Ethics opens an investigation into the matter, asking you to provide documents and other information regarding your trip. The House Ethics Committee also starts looking into the matter and asks OCE to halt its investigation. OCE refuses, leaving you stuck in the middle. Then someone leaks OCE’s “confidential report” and you find your trip to Baku has made the front page of the Washington Post. It is somewhat unclear exactly what findings and recommendations OCE made, as the Post did not publish the report itself, but the Post article makes various insinuations about your ethics and judgment.
So, did you actually do anything wrong?
Like so much that has happened along the silk roads for the past couple millennia, it’s complicated.