The man behind one of the most controversial Congressional trips this decade finally pleads guilty
A former head of a Texas nonprofit pleaded guilty this week to concealing the funding behind a scandal-plagued Congressional trip to Azerbaijan in 2013.
Dozens of representatives and staffers traveled in luxury throughout their visit to Azerbaijan, all of which was secretly funded by the Azeri government’s state-run oil firm. Between the lavish gifts — including thousand-dollar rugs, crystal tea sets, and DVDs featuring Azerbaijan’s dictator — and the subsequent attempts to cover up the Azeri government’s funding, the trip was easily one of the most controversial foreign junkets of the past decade.
The trip also became a case study in how foreign governments seek to influence American legislators without disclosing their role, including using nonprofits to mask the actual funding, and then lying about who is bankrolling the travel.
This week, Kemal Oksuz, the nominal organizer of the trip, admitted that he had worked to conceal the source of funding from the House Ethics Committee. Oksuz, who was recently extradited from Armenia back to the U.S., pleaded guilty to “devising a scheme to falsify, conceal and cover up material facts from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ethics,” according to a statement from the Department of Justice.
As investigators determined, Oksuz blatantly lied about the source of the trip’s funding. Oksuz claimed that the trip was funded by his Houston-based nonprofit, called the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE). In reality, the source of the funding was SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-run energy firm.
Oksuz admitted to “orchestrating a scheme to funnel money to fund the trip” from SOCAR, “and then concealed the true source of funding, which violated House travel regulations.”
One expert on Congressional ethics previously described the affair as the most brazen attempt at breaching House ethics regulations since the days of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the mid-2000s.
Oksuz will be sentenced in February. There remains no indication that any Congressional representatives on the trip — which included Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), Ted Poe (R-TX), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) — committed any wrongdoing.
The trip is a clear example of post-Soviet kleptocracies seeking to influence American politics, long before Russia decided to throw its weight behind Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. After the Congressional representatives returned to the U.S., for instance, many of them began advocating for Azerbaijan’s interests in Washington.
The affair also highlighted how easily it is for foreign governments to funnel funding via 501(c)(3) charitable organizations in the U.S. without any requisite disclosure. As the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project noted, Oksuz used a network of other nonprofit organizations to further obscure the ultimate source of the funding. (One Azeri representative offered free airfare and lodging to this reporter to cover the 2013 trip, so long nothing “negative” was written “about Azerbaijan.” This reporter declined the offer.)
As one of the heads of one of the nonprofits involved said when asked by investigators whether statements about funding were untruthful, “I mean, to be honest, it seems… like so, yes. I mean, we didn’t accept it maybe, but yes we did. What can I say?”