By Harut Sassounian
The international media is replete these days with scandalous stories about European and American politicians being wined and dined in Azerbaijan and Turkey, for self-serving ulterior motives.
The latest such exposé, published by the Houston Chronicle on July 27, was titled: “Congress members’ trips raise red flags.” The article revealed that five Turkic non-profit groups spent $274,459 for the lavish travel of 10 members of Congress and 35 staffers to Azerbaijan in May 2013. The funds were contributed by:
-- Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (Houston): $101,680
-- Turkish American Federation of the Midwest (Chicago): $68,324
-- Turkic American Alliance (Washington, DC): $52,975
-- Turkic American Federation of the Southeast (Atlanta): $26,550
-- Council of Turkic American Associations (New York): $24,930
The 10 members of Congress travelling to Baku on all-expenses-paid trip were:
-- Danny Davis (D-IL): $24,084
-- Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX): $19,962
-- Jim Bridenstine (R-OK): $14,173
-- Ted Poe (R-TX): $13,431
-- Steve Stockman (R-TX): $13,431
-- Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM): $12,780
-- Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX): $12,034
-- Leonard Lance (R-NJ): $9,798
-- Yvette Clark (D-NY): $8,701
-- Gregory Meeks (D-NY): $6,431
The actual purpose of the congressional trip was to attend a conference sponsored in part by SOCAR (Azerbaijan’s national oil company) which along with one of its partners, NIOC (Iran’s national oil company), was embarking on a $28 billion project to develop the Shah Deniz gas field. It was no coincidence that the junket was organized at a time when Congress was considering additional sanctions against Iran. The Azeris and their Iranian partners desperately needed an exemption from Congress to carry out their mega-project. Not surprisingly, less than two months after the congressional delegation’s return from its extravagant trip, the House of Representatives went along and approved the sought after exemption!
The Houston Chronicle explained the speedy approval of this bill by a usually slow-moving Congress by the fact that “SOCAR, along with other Azeri government interests, has become one of Washington, D.C.’s big spenders in efforts to win American allies to get its petroleum products to markets worldwide…. Lobbyists, the Azeri government and energy companies all participated in the elaborate Baku gathering” at the plush Heydar Aliyev Center with Pres. Ilham Aliyev as keynote speaker. “At least four congressmen took along a spouse or a fiancé. Some flew first-class and extended their trips with stays in luxury hotels in Turkey. The congressional travel tabs alone totaled $270,000.”
Interestingly, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, the main organizer of the visit, “did not disclose any corporate support or foreign government assistance for the Baku congressional trips,” as required by Federal law, the Chronicle reported. The five Turkic non-profit organizations and 10 Members of Congress may have violated congressional ethics rules and federal law by not disclosing corporate donations for the trip, the Chronicle stated.
Records show that Cong. Meeks “did not disclose his Baku trip expenses until a year after the deadline,” the Chronicle disclosed. Moreover, Cong. Stockman had received an additional $5,000 in campaign contributions in three installments, during the same month as the trip, from Kemal Oksuz, president of the Turquoise Council, who leads two non-profits that share the same address in Houston. “Both groups were identified as sponsors or organizers of the Baku conference, and both have accepted money from SOCAR. One group, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan, operates as a U.S.-based public relations arm of SOCAR,” according to the Chronicle.
Oksuz reportedly told an American journalist in Baku that the oil conference had cost $1.5 million. He also said that some guests had received hand-woven rugs as gifts -- which would be a violation, if not reported to proper U.S. authorities.
The Chronicle revealed that “many of those non-profits are led by followers of Fetullah Gulen, a moderate Turkish ex-Imam who lives in exile in an enclave in Pennsylvania…. Collectively, Turkic groups have funded 272 foreign trips for members of Congress and their staffs from 2009-2013" to Azerbaijan and Turkey.
In addition to its eye-opening investigative article, the Houston Chronicle published a blistering editorial, chiding the 10 members of Congress for “being distressingly naïve or disgustingly corrupt,” and in return for “a few well-placed donations,” serving the interests of Azerbaijan, “a corrupt kleptocracy ruled by the Aliyev family, which lines its pockets while keeping political dissent firmly quashed.”