According to the Washington Post, the Office of Congressional Ethics has discovered that a state-owned Azerbaijani energy company used nonprofit proxies to fund a trip by 10 members of the House of Representatives to a 2013 conference in Azerbaijan. Such foreign-funded travel would appear to violate the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act; per the Post, however, there is no evidence any of the legislators who took the trip knew that the two Houston-based nonprofits that funded it were actually fronts for Azerbaijani government interests.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which was launched in 2008 to conduct investigations, has given its report on the matter to the House Committee on Ethics. The House Committee on Ethics can recommend sanctions against House members (which would then be voted on by the full House) and can also refer incidents of potential illegality to state and federal authorities.
The Azerbaijani energy company involved is known as SOCAR, and its presumed motive for wining and dining United States figures, per the Post, is to ensure that a gas pipeline on which both SOCAR and an Iranian company are working continues to win exemptions from American sanctions against Iran. Such exemptions allow companies involved with the pipeline to continue to do business in the United States and have been granted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on multiple occasions. (Travel-funding shenanigans aside, the pipeline is considered beneficial to American interests “because it would bolster European security by offering an alternative to Russian gas,” the Post writes.)
The members of Congress who attended the 2013 Azerbaijan conference on SOCAR’s surreptitious dime were Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), Ted Poe (R-Texas) and former Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas). Former high-level presidential advisers Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina, and David Plouffe received fees in the tens of thousands of dollars to speak at the conference as well, though it doesn’t appear that they violated any rules by doing so since they did not have formal ties to the White House at the time.