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Report: U.S. lawmakers trip funded by Azerbaijan oil firm

WASHINGTON -- The state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan secretly funded an all-expenses-paid trip to a conference at Baku on the Caspian Sea in 2013 for 10 members of Congress and 32 staff members, according to a confidential ethics report obtained by The Washington Post.

Lawmakers and their staff members received hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of travel expenses, silk scarves, crystal tea sets and Azerbaijani rugs valued at $2,500 to $10,000, according to the ethics report. Airfare for lawmakers and some of their spouses cost $112,899, travel invoices show.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) was one of the members. A statement from his office said Meeks "is confident that he complied with the law when he accepted the trip."

Meeks "understood the rug to be a permissible courtesy gift," the statement added.

The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as SOCAR, allegedly funneled $750,000 through nonprofit corporations based in the United States to conceal the source of the funding for the conference in the former Soviet nation, according to the 70-page report by the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent investigative arm of the House.

Three former political advisers to President Barack Obama spoke at the conference. They were Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and David Plouffe.

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.

The nonprofit corporations allegedly filed false statements with Congress swearing that they were sponsoring the conference. The findings have been referred to the House Committee on Ethics for investigation of possible violations of congressional rules and federal laws that bar foreign governments from trying to influence U.S. policy.

Tom Rust, chief counsel and staff director for the Ethics Committee, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Office of Congressional Ethics also declined to comment on the report.

The conference, titled U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision for the Future, took place May 28-29, 2013. During the previous year, SOCAR and several large energy companies sought exemptions for a $28 billion natural gas pipeline project in the Caspian Sea from U.S. economic sanctions being imposed on Iran.

The congressional investigators could not determine whether lawmakers used their official positions to benefit SOCAR or the pipeline project. They also found no evidence that the lawmakers or their staffers knew that the conference was being funded by a foreign government.

The report said 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. The statement from Meeks' office cited the dispute as an explanation for why he declined to be interviewed by the OCE.

--With Alice Crites


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