Azerbaijan funded trip for 10 U.S. lawmakers: media report

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover 10 U.S. lawmakers’ travel expenses as well as scarves, rugs and other gifts by sending funds through nonprofit corporations, the Washington Post reported, citing a confidential report.

The findings by the U.S. House of Representatives’ independent Office of Congressional Ethics said the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) funded the all-expenses-paid trip to a 2013 convention for the lawmakers and 32 House staff members, according to the newspaper.

The May 2013 “U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention” came one year after Azerbaijan’s oil company and several others asked Congress to exempt a $28 billion natural gas pipeline project from U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, according to the newspaper.

The company “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,” the Post said.

Additionally, three former aides to U.S. President Barack Obama appeared at the conference as speakers, according to the Post.

Reuters has not confirmed the Post’s story.

Lawmakers and their staff members received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of travel expenses and gifts, including Azerbaijani rugs valued at $2,500 to $10,000, according to the ethics report. Travel receipts showed airfare costs totaling $112,899, the Post reported.

“Congressional investigators could not determine whether lawmakers used their official positions to benefit SOCAR or the pipeline project,” the Post wrote of the probe, which it said represented the ethics panel’s most extensive investigation since it was created in 2008.

“They also found no evidence that the lawmakers or their staffers knew that the conference was being funded by a foreign government,” it said, added that lawmakers said the ethics committee had approved the trip.

The House lawmakers affected, according to the Post, were Oklahoma Republican Jim Bridenstine, New York Democrats Yvette Clarke and Gregory Meeks, Illinois Democrat Danny Davis, Texas Democrats Rubén Hinojosa and Sheila Jackson Lee, New Jersey Republican Leonard Lance, New Mexico Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, Texas Republican Ted Poe. Former Representative Steve Stockman, also a Texas Republican, was also part of the delegation at the time.

Reporting by Washington Newsroom; editing by Andrew Hay