U.S. congressional ethics investigators say Azerbaijan's state-owned oil company SOCAR spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to secretly bankroll a trip to Baku for 10 members of the U.S. Congress and provide them with gifts, The Washington Post has reported.
Citing a confidential congressional ethics report, the Post reported on May 13 that SOCAR funneled $750,000 through U.S.-based nonprofit to hide source of the funding for the lawmakers’ 2013 trip to a conference in Baku.
Three former top aides to President Barack Obama appeared as speakers at the conference.
The ethics report, the result of an investigation by the U.S. Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), said the money was also used to pay for gifts like silk scarves, crystal tea sets, and Azerbaijani rugs that were given to the lawmakers and their staff members.
RFE/RL has not seen the ethics report.
The newspaper said congressional investigators “could not determine" whether lawmakers used their official positions to benefit SOCAR and "found no evidence" that the lawmakers or their staffers knew that the conference was being funded by a foreign government.
The newspaper said that the lawmakers, all of whom serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, told investigators that they did not know that the trip was paid for by SOCAR.
The ethics report said SOCAR used two Texas-based organizations -- The Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE) and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) -- to conceal Azerbaijan’s role in underwriting the lawmakers’ trip, the Post reported.
SOCAR denied that its sponsorship of the conference was a secret and blamed the nonprofit organizations for failing to report the Azerbaijani state oil firm's funding of the conference.
"SOCAR has never been under investigation in this matter because the responsibility for disclosing SOCAR's financial support for the conference fell to those who were the trip's sponsors," the company said in a May 13 statement.
The company added that it was "disappointed that the compliance procedures may not have been followed correctly by the trip's sponsors and we are unclear why these disclosures were omitted."
"SOCAR will happily work to address this situation, and looks forward to sponsoring future events to introduce policymakers to the issues concerning this critical region," it said.
The company said that "at no time" did it "hide from the attendees of the conference our involvement."
The Post quoted the ethics investigators as saying: "SOCAR and AFAZ provided gifts in the form of impermissible travel expenses to congressional travelers in violation of House rules, regulations, and federal law."
Oil-rich Azerbaijan in recent years has expanded its U.S. lobbying presence amid increasing criticism of its human rights record from Western officials and rights groups.
It has also long stood accused of "caviar diplomacy," using vacations, carpets, jewelry, and fish eggs to win friends and influence policymakers.
The Post reported that the conference in Baku, titled the U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision For The Future, was held a year after SOCAR and other major energy companies asked the U.S. Congress to exempt a $28 billion Caspian Sea gas pipeline project from U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran.
The paper said that 10 members of Congress were cited in the ethics report as having had their travel expenses to the Baku conference paid for by SOCAR.
The lawmakers in question, the Post reported, are U.S. Representatives Jim Bridenstine, Yvette Clark, Danny Davis, Ruben Hinojosa, Sheila Jackson Lee, Leonard Lance, Michelle Lujan Grisham, Gregory Meeks, Ted Poe, and Steve Stockman, who is no longer in office.
Several lawmakers cited in the report said they were unaware of the Azerbaijani government’s reported role in financing their trips to the Baku conference and that they had cooperated with ethics investigators.
The investigators noted in the report, however, that “a person’s ignorance of the true source of travel expenses is not an absolute shield from liability for receipt of travel expenses from an improper source,” the Post reported.
The Post quoted the ethics report as saying that Poe, a Texas Republican who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, failed to “fully cooperate” with the investigators or “acknowledge receipt of their request for information.”
Shaylyn Hynes, a spokeswoman for Poe, told RFE/RL had cooperated with OCE investigators, "contrary to The Washington Post’s claims."
"In its report, the OCE clearly states it did not receive any evidence that the Congressman knew that TCAE was not the sole organizer or sponsor of the travel," Hynes added in an e-mail.
A spokesman for Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat, told RFE/RL that "the Congresswoman takes House Ethics rules seriously, which is why she sought and received written approval from the Ethics Committee before taking the trip."
"Rep. Lujan Grisham acted in good faith as she relied on the approval by House Ethics Committee," the spokesman, Gilbert Gallegos, said in an e-mail.
He added that Grisham "has fully cooperated with the Office of Congressional Ethics, and is continuing to cooperate with the House Ethics Committee."
Tom Rust, a spokesman for the House Ethics Committee, declined to comment on the Post report when contacted by RFE/RL on May 13.
Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat, said in e-mailed comments that he obtained written authorization for him and his wife to travel to Azerbaijan and that he "believed the purpose of the trip" to Baku was to "strengthen" ties between the United States and Azerbaijan.
"I received souvenirs of what I believed to be of minimal value and in compliance with the House Gift rule," Hinojosa said. "Almost a year after the trip, I learned that an investigation was being conducted into the funding source of this trip. My staff and I have fully cooperated with the investigation."
Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments provided by his spokeswoman that he had cooperated with the OCE’s information requests and "made good-faith efforts to comply" with rules on gifts for members of Congress.
He said he returned two rugs that the Post report said were valued at $2,500 and $3,500 respectively, well above the $350 threshold that requires a House member to report the gifts.
"I also received a porcelain tea set which was valued at $87, well under the Foreign Gifts Disclosure Act rules, and an educational book and four local traditional music CDs," Bridenstine told RFE/RL.
He said that the Baku conference "improved my understanding of the region’s geopolitical situation" and added that "Azerbaijan is uniquely positioned to diminish the effectiveness of Russia's territorial ambitions."
Since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory in March 2014, Azerbaijan has also aggressively promoted itself in the U.S. capital as key player in ensuring European energy security that can help mitigate the EU’s reliance on Russian gas.