“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.

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