According to a report by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) that was leaked to the Washington Post, ten House members broke House Rules when they took an all-expenses paid trip in 2013 to a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, courtesy of an oil company known as SOCAR. Also enjoying free trips were 32 staff members.
Azerbaijan is a country in Central Asia ruled by strongman Ilham Aliyev. In 2012, the Organized Crime and Corruption Project named him its “Person of the Year” for doing “the most to promote organized criminal activity or advance corruption.”
OCE apparently acted in response to a July 2014 story in the Houston Chronicle by Lise Olsen and Will Tucker describing the trip. In addition to SOCAR, BP, ConocoPhillips and KBR also helped to pay the costs of the event, estimated at $1.5 million. Those costs included $100,000 for hotels, $75,000 for food and entertainment, and $1.2 million for travel and other expenses.
The House members who took the trip were Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) in photo, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and then-Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.). Clarke is a member of the Ethics Committee.
Allegedly, four of these refused to cooperate with OCE: Jackson Lee, Lance, Meeks (in photo) and Poe. Meeks, the target of repeated investigations, has a history of noncooperation with ethics bodies.
The Chronicle story described how nonprofit organizations were apparently used as fronts to launder the prohibited corporate funding.
When sponsoring Congressional travel, nonprofit leaders must certify under oath that they have not received money from corporations that lobby Congress. The Chronicle quoted NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm:
Once the corporate sponsors admit their paid involvement, it's game over for whoever signed the House pre-trip forms stating falsely that there was no such sponsorship.
Unlike House rules violations, lying under oath is criminal. In 2011, Karl Rodney pled guilty lying to Congress after he falsely certified that a Caribbean junket by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus was sponsored by his nonprofit, when in fact it was underwritten by Citigroup and other large corporations.
As detailed in the Post story by Scott Higham, Steven Rich, and Alice Crites, the OCE report says that the House members offered the defense that they did not know SOCAR underwrote the trip, but the investigators detailed how SOCAR sent out invitations, arranged visa entries for the lawmakers and staff members, and hung banners with SOCAR’s logo throughout the conference halls.
Three former top-level aides to President Obama were speakers at the conference, Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and David Plouffe, along with former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). It is not known how much they were paid, but Azerbaijan has a reputation for shelling out big speaking fees to Western political figures. SOCAR is a partner with the National Iranian Oil Company in a pipeline project. On June 3, 2013, five days after the conference, Obama signed an executive order assessing economic sanctions against Iran that exempted the SOCAR/Iranian project.
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.
OCE should not be confused with the House Ethics Committee. Its board is comprised of former members of Congress and private citizens, making it somewhat more independent. It cannot sanction members but can only make referrals to the Ethics Committee. Despite this limitation, OCE has provided a platform to air ethics charges that might otherwise be buried.
Consider the Charles Rangel case. NLPC President Peter Flaherty tagged along on a Caribbean junket in November 2008 to sunny St. Maarten. He snapped photos and made audio recordings evidencing that the event was underwritten by big corporations.
OCE took up the case, one of its first, and produced a detailed report based on Flaherty's materials. It then referred its findings to the Ethics Committee for action. The Ethics Committee "admonished" Rangel who was forced to resign his Ways and Means Chairmanship in the ensuing media swirl.
Regarding the Azerbaijan report, the Post reported:
…members of the House Ethics Committee wrote to the Office of Congressional Ethics requesting a halt to their 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.”
Incumbents in both parties have maneuvered both publicly and behind the scenes to get rid of OCE. The Congressional Black Caucus, in particular, became harshly critical of OCE in the wake of the Rangel investigation. According to Boehm, “This Azerbaijan report shows the value of OCE. Let’s hope the House Ethics Committee now takes it seriously, and does its job”