WASHINGTON -- A former U.S. congressman has resigned as chairman of a central player in the multimillion-dollar Azerbaijani lobbying effort to court American support for the ex-Soviet republic's authoritarian government, saying he has not been paid for his services "in a year."
Former U.S. Representative Dan Burton (Republican-Indiana) this week resigned from the Azerbaijan America Alliance, a group founded by tycoon Anar Mammadov, son of the oil-rich Caucasus nation’s transport minister, that has paid U.S. lobbyists more than $12 million since 2011.
"As I have not heard from you or Anar, and have not been paid for a year, please consider this e-mail as a letter of resignation as Chairman of the Azerbaijan American Alliance," Burton wrote in a March 1 e-mail to James Fabiani, whose Washington-based firm lobbies for the group in the United States. The e-mail was seen by RFE/RL.
Fabiani did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment or to a voicemail left with his office, and no one answered the phone at the number listed on the Azerbaijan America Alliance’s website.
Mammadov, a recent business partner of U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump for the construction of a 33-floor, sail-shaped luxury hotel in Baku, did not respond to a Facebook message, and no one answered the phone at the number listed on his website.
Burton’s resignation follows months of speculation about the fate of the Azerbaijan America Alliance, a prominent pillar of a broader Azerbaijani lobbying campaign in the United States to portray Azerbaijan as a stable energy and security partner for the West. The lobby involves both private and state money.
Baku's detractors accuse President Ilham Aliyev's government and its proxies of trying to paper over an abysmal human rights record with "caviar diplomacy," using gifts, vacations, and other expensive incentives to gain friends and curry favor with foreign officials.
Aliyev recently removed broad powers from the Transport Ministry, overseen by Mammadov’s father, suggesting the family’s influence in the government is waning.
Several reports in the Azerbaijani media since August have cited unidentified sources as saying that Mammadov planned to shutter the Azerbaijan America Alliance due to financial difficulties amid the broader economic crisis Azerbaijan is grappling with due to plunging energy prices.
Burton’s predecessor as the group’s chairman, Azerbaijani businessman Khayal Sharifzadeh, denied those reports, saying the organization "continues its activity as usual and even in a larger scale."
Wining And Dining
Over the past five years, the Azerbaijan America Alliance has poured a total of $12.3 million into U.S. lobbying efforts, according to the public-interest website Opensecrets.org, having wined and dined Washington's elite and pushed Baku’s interests in meetings with senior members of Congress.
Fabiani & Company’s work for the group has made the Top 10 list of priciest U.S. lobbying contracts every year since the organization’s launch in 2011, according to rankings compiled by Opensecrets.org.
The organization, which is not formally affiliated with the Azerbaijani state but has hewn closely to the Aliyev government’s line, has continued this spending, paying $1.46 million for U.S. lobbying services in 2015, most of which went to Fabiani & Company, according to public lobbying disclosures.
Precisely how that money is being spent remains unclear. The group’s public activities appear to have ground to a halt. It has not updated its social media accounts or the news feed on its website since November, and it did not stage its lavish annual gala dinner in 2015 as it had the previous three years.
The group spent $430,000 for its 2012 dinner, which was attended by then-House of Representatives speaker John Boehner (pictured with Mammadov at left) and 15 other members of Congress, including Burton, according to a 2013 filing under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
In 2013, the Azerbaijan America Alliance terminated its FARA registration, which had required it to provide detailed accounts of its expenditures and contacts with government officials, journalists, and other individuals while lobbying.
Its spending is now reported under the U.S. Lobbying Disclosure Act, which requires a far less detailed account of a lobbying activities than FARA. Fabiani & Company’s filings reporting its work for the Azerbaijan America Alliance in each quarter of 2015 indicate only that contacts were made with the U.S. State Department and both houses of Congress.
‘I Didn’t Want To Be Involved Anymore’
Burton was named chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance in February 2013, a month after he left office after a 30-year career in Congress. He told RFE/RL this week that Fabiani introduced him to Mammadov, chairman of Garant Holding, a conglomerate with interests that include construction firms, hotels, and insurance companies.
Investigations by RFE/RL have previously revealed that Anar Mammadov's business interests are tied to the ministry overseen by his father, Ziya Mammadov.
Burton said that he did not engage in lobbying during his time with the Azerbaijan America Alliance, but that he would occasionally invite members of Congress to “social functions” staged by the group.
Burton was still listed as chairman on the group's website as of March 2.
He also published opinion articles supporting the Azerbaijani government. One such piece in The Washington Times was singled out by Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple, who noted that it failed to mention Burton’s affiliation with the Azerbaijan America Alliance.
In his resignation e-mail, Burton said that while he believes "it is very important that there be a strong business and government relationship between the United States and Azerbaijan, I still must resign" due to nonpayment.
He declined to say how much he was paid as the organization's chairman.
He told RFE/RL that he has not been paid for his services since February 2015.
“I hope they don’t have my name still as chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance. I told them that I didn’t want to be involved anymore,” he said in a March 1 telephone interview.
As of March 2, Burton was still listed as chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance on the organization's website.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service