The official actions of the lawmakers to encourage energy development in the Caspian Sea and the clusters of contributions from people linked to the nonprofits that facilitated the trip have not been previously reported. The trip itself has been scrutinized by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which found that the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the two nonprofits to pay for the 10 lawmakers to attend a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, at which the development of natural gas pipelines through the Caucasus region and Turkey were discussed, according to the Washington Post. Earlier reports on the trip said it was paid for by two Texas nonprofits closely affiliated with followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ).
A representative of SOCAR confirmed to OpenSecrets Blog that his company provided the money to AFAZ. According to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing from 2014, AFAZ was working on behalf of SOCAR. Travel disclosures by the lawmakers who went to Baku indicate the travel and other costs were paid by the Turquoise Council or one of several Turkic-American groups with close ties to the Council.
But the journey was only one of the benefits the lawmakers received from parties involved in planning the event. At least five of the lawmakers who attended the conference received tens of thousands of dollars since 2011 from board members and employees of the two nonprofits as well as individuals affiliated with several other Texas-based organizations linked to Gulen. Two of them sponsored bills that appear to benefit Azerbaijani natural gas interests and efforts to build a pipeline through the region.
The trip to Baku was not a secret, nor was it on its face unusual. Lawmakers may take trips at others’ expense — as long as those picking up the tab aren’t foreign governments or lobbyists. The House Ethics Committee must approve the trips in advance, and did so in this case. But the nonprofits misrepresented themselves to the Ethics Committee and were actually funded by SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company, according to the Post‘s account of the ethics report. The lawmakers who took the trip – and whose travel costs ran into the tens of thousands of dollars each, including gifts like carpets and tea sets — have denied knowing the true source of the funding.
Rauf Mammedov, SOCAR’s representative in the United States and a board member of AFAZ, told OpenSecrets Blog that it is true that his company funded AFAZ, but insisted it was never a secret.
“SOCAR gave funds to AFAZ in 2013 and those funds were intended to help facilitate the conference,” Mammedov said. “In return, AFAZ was to ensure that SOCAR would be publicly and prominently identified as a main sponsor of the conference.” Mammedov also said that SOCAR does no lobbying.
But Chris Rizek, an attorney representing AFAZ, said in a statement that AFAZ did not fund the congressional trips, and on travel disclosure forms it appears the Turquoise Council paid for the lawmakers to go to Baku. Representatives of the Turquoise Council did not respond to multiple requests seeking an interview as to the source of the money.
Most of the members of the congressional delegation, including those whose travel was not covered by the nonprofits, seem to have had a long and friendly relationship with the Gulen movement and those interested in expanding oil and gas interests in the Caspian Sea region. OpenSecrets Blog analyzed donations made by board members of the two foundations, along with any identifiable family members, and directors and employees of several other nonprofit organizations with ties to the Gulen movement, and found hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Congress and at least $196,000 to the campaigns of five members of the delegation to Baku since 2008.
Taking an interest in Azerbaijan
The development of natural gas fields in the Caspian Sea involves an intersection of Turkish and Azerbaijani interests. While the conference was held in Baku, where SOCAR is based, the gas would have to travel via a pipeline through Turkey in order to make it to markets in Europe or elsewhere. In fact, many members of the congressional delegation traveled on to Turkey after the conference.
The overlap between those involved in the two nonprofits that shuttled members of Congress to Baku and donors to the lawmakers adds a further element of intrigue to the story. Many of the donors, as well as the two nonprofits, appear to be affiliated with the religious and political movement associated with Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who went into self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania in the late 1990s. Gulen, whose followers number in the millions worldwide, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have had an antagonistic relationship, particularly in the wake of a corruption scandal that has weakened Erdogan’s administration.
Shortly after returning from the conference, which took place on May 28-29, 2013, Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.) sponsored an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill that would have required the Department of Defense to issue reports on the strategic importance of natural gas interests in the Caspian Sea area and the value of building a pipeline out of the region.
On June 13, a mere two weeks after the conference, his office issued not one, but two press releases proclaiming his support for the amendment.
“Full exploitation of Caspian resources and pipeline diversification could have big implications for both NATO energy security and the political independence of the post-Soviet world,” Bridenstine’s press release claimed.
The amendment — which was included in the final version of the bill passed by the House, but not the version ultimately signed into law — specifically called for the Department of Defense to submit “a detailed report on the implications of new energy resource development and distribution networks, both planned and under construction, in the areas surrounding the Caspian Sea for energy security strategies of the United States and NATO.”
In December 2013, Bridenstine took a flurry of further actions to promote the idea of developing Caspian Sea natural gas interests.
On Dec. 10, he published an op-ed in the Washington Times, in which he railed against Russia and declared that “rather than capitulate to Moscow’s bullying, Baku builds oil and gas pipelines that specifically avoid the trap of crossing into Russian territory.”
“Fortunately, Azerbaijan’s energy boom – a genuine partnership with private enterprise – provides an additional way to ensure energy security,” Bridenstine wrote. “The United States should fully support Azerbaijan’s energy development so that Baku is not forced to choose between integrating with the West or being coerced into Vladimir Putin’s dreams of a new Russian imperium.”
Bridenstine also argued that Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992 should be repealed. That language bans Azerbaijan from participating in a number of aid and economic programs open to other former Soviet republics. A waiver of the ban has been in place since 2001.
On Dec. 15, Bridenstine visited the Azerbaijan Center in Houston for an event sponsored by the Houston-Baku Sister City Association — an organization run by Irada Akhoundova, a board member of AFAZ.
On his disclosure forms, Bridenstine valued the Baku trip at more than $14,100. But that’s not all that came his way. In the 2014 election cycle alone, the Oklahoma congressman also received $29,000 from donors in the network associated with AFAZ or the Turquoise Council, an OpenSecrets analysis shows. There were 11 different donors, and all the money came in on three dates: three weeks before the Baku trip, on May 7, 2013; nine days after his op-ed, on Dec. 19, 2013; and Oct. 27, 2014.
Bridenstine’s office said it did not have time to respond to questions on the subject. But others on the Baku trip also tried to bring Congress’s attention to development of natural gas interests in the Caspian Sea after their return.
Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), who attended the conference but, according to his office, was a speaker and did not have his expenses paid by AFAZ or Turquoise Council, has sponsored two House resolutions “[e]xpressing the sense of the House of Representatives with respect to promoting energy security of European allies through opening up the Southern Gas Corridor.” Specifically, the resolutions highlight the value of the pipeline sought by organizers of the Baku conference. The first iteration was sponsored on June 27, 2013, one month after the Baku conference.
Seven of the 10 other members on the Baku trip, including Bridenstine, signed on as cosponsors to the first version, and four of the 10 signed on to the more recent one, which Turner sponsored in March.
According to an OpenSecrets Blog analysis of Turner’s campaign finances, he has received at least $38,200 over his career from donors linked to AFAZ, Turquoise Council or the other Gulen-affiliated groups. Again, many of the donations came on the same date.
For example, on Dec. 20, 2012, several months before the Baku trip, Kemal Oksuz, the chairman of the Turquoise Council and AFAZ donated $2,500 to Turner. The same day, a Houston man named Tarik Celik, the head of a group called the American Turkic Business Council, which uses the same mailing address as the Turquoise Council, also donated $2,500, as did his wife.
Turner’s office refused to answer questions about donations to his campaign.
Reps. Ted Poe and Sheila Jackson Lee could hardly be more ideologically at odds or represent districts that are more demographically different. Poe is a conservative Republican and a member of the Tea Party Caucus; he represents the northern suburbs of Houston. Jackson Lee is a liberal Democrat elected by the voters of inner city Houston, and in 2010 generated a ruckus by comparing the Tea Party to the Klu Klux Klan at the NAACP annual convention.
But they do have some things in common. Both went on the Baku trip as paid guests of the Turquoise Council. And both have received significant campaign money from board members of that group and AFAZ, as well as from board members or employees of a slew of Gulen-linked organizations, mainly in Texas. Those organizations include the Harmony Public School charter school system, a sprawling and fast-growing chain with a heavy emphasis on STEM education, and North American University, a relatively new school in Houston with a similar focus on science. Neither is officially affiliated with Gulen, but followers of the movement fill many of the top leadership roles and a number of those involved with both of the educational institutions have ties to various board members of AFAZ or Turquoise Council.
Since 2011, Jackson Lee has received more than $78,000 from donors identified by OpenSecrets as associated with AFAZ, the Turquoise Council or other nonprofits in the Gulen orbit, and Poe has received $39,200. And in a strange bit of ideological dissonance, a number of these contributors gave to both lawmakers — including the wife of the founder of AFAZ and the Turquoise Council and eight staff members of Harmony Public Schools.
Jackson Lee, the top recipient of money from the donors identified by OpenSecrets, declined to answer any questions about the donations. A spokesperson told OpenSecrets Blog only that her campaign obeys all campaign finance laws.
In total, OpenSecrets Blog found this group of donors has donated more than $482,000 to federal candidates since 2011. While the OpenSecrets Blog analysis focused primarily on donors from Texas to politicians on the May 2013 trip to Baku and those most closely linked to AFAZ and the Turquoise Council, a 2014 investigation published by BuzzFeed found pockets of Gulen donors in New York City as well. While some of those donors overlapped with those identified by OpenSecrets Blog, Buzzfeed found donations from Gulen groups to a sixth member of the May 2013 Baku delegation, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).
The Kemal Oksuz nexus
Among the most generous of these donors is Kemal Oksuz, a Houston businessman and the founder of both the Turquoise Council and AFAZ. In 2013, Oksuz was also listed as a board member of the Turkic American Alliance, the nonprofit which claims to bring together the various Turkish American organizations that paid for the travel that was not picked up by the Turquoise Council. Oksuz and his immediate family members have donated more than $103,000 to federal politicians since 2011, according to OpenSecrets.org data.
That includes $26,200 they gave to four members of the Baku delegation, including $5,000 to then Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), just six days before the event – which Okusz attended as well. They increased their giving to Stockman by another $7,000 later in the summer of 2013.
Oksuz is the former executive director of the Niagara Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that lists Fethullah Gulen as its chairman. Oksuz, who did not return calls or emails seeking comment, was also the co-owner of Target Design Management, a Houston construction firm, which has done work worth tens of millions of dollars for a small, close-knit group of organizations with strong links to the Gulen movement. According to the firm’s website, its current projects include a $13 million contract with Harmony Public Schools and a $59 million contract with North American University. In fact, the ties between Harmony and Oksuz’ firm are so close, and the relationship so lucrative, that the firm attracted national attention soon after it was established.
Okusz appears to have multilayered political connections. Milla Perry Jones, the sister of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is on the AFAZ board. Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign received at least $25,000 from this network of donors. And Okusz’ social media accounts are littered with photos of him with prominent American politicians — including numerous shots of him in Baku on the 2013 trip, with, among others, Bridenstine and Turner. Oksuz also appears in pictures from the 2013 visit by Bridenstine to the Houston-Baku event.
Oksuz declined to comment. AFAZ’ attorney, Chris Rizek, said in a statement that he “believes the conference served as a forum to advance shared goals and greater understanding between the United States and a key ally in an important region of the world.” He did not respond to questions about whether Oksuz knew of a coordinated effort to raise funds for members of Congress who might help develop gas interests in the region.
In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fethullah Gulen told followers they may not visit him at his estate in Pennsylvania without first donating to their local member of Congress; Gulen denied saying that.
The question of who really paid for trips remains unanswered, but may not for long.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the House Ethics Committee launched a formal investigation into the matter in March.
Rauf Mammedov, a board member of AFAZ and the representative of SOCAR in the United States, told OpenSecrets Blog that it was no secret that his company funded AFAZ. But he disavowed any knowledge of the details of how the trip was paid for.
“SOCAR gave funds to AFAZ in 2013 and those funds were intended to help facilitate the conference. In return,” Mammedov said, “AFAZ was to ensure that SOCAR would be publicly and prominently identified as a main sponsor of the conference. You’d have to speak with the trip organizers to get more information about how things were paid for.”
Although he’s a board member of AFAZ, Mammedov said his day-to-day interaction with the organization was “nonexistent.”
Mammedov also denied any knowledge of an effort to encourage donors to give to members of Congress.
Rizek, the AFAZ attorney, complained that the report leaked to the Washington Post had made it difficult for the truth to come out.
“The government disregarded due process by leaking a preliminary report to the press outside of congressionally mandated procedures,” he said in a statement to OpenSecrets Blog. “A full and legitimate process would have revealed the preliminary report’s inaccuracies … Contrary to the assertions of the preliminary report and related press stories, for example, AFAZ did not underwrite congressional travel expenses and any donations AFAZ received therefore did not fund congressional travel.”
Rizek did not respond to questions about Oksuz’ other group, the Turquoise Council, which the lawmakers reported as the main underwriter of the trip.