Sweet: Questions arise over Rep. Danny Davis’ trip to Azerbaijan

SHARE Sweet: Questions arise over Rep. Danny Davis’ trip to Azerbaijan

WASHINGTON – A major question in the House Ethics Committee review of a 2013 trip Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., and his wife, Vera, took to Azerbaijan — which he reported was paid by a Mount Prospect group — is whether money from that nation’s state-owned oil company was improperly used to help pay for it.

The controversy puts other questions on the table: Just why is the Ethics Committee approving trips without digging into the funding sources? And just what are the responsibilities of the member to make sure that the sponsor is really the sponsor?

On Monday, the House Ethics panel said in a statement it would continue to look into allegations about the trip nine members of Congress made to Baku in May, 2013 – while making the admission the committee approved the travel after all the lawmakers asked if they could accept the invitation.

“Subsequently, questions arose about whether the trips complied with the requirements for such travel,” the ethics panel said.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, known as SOCAR, allegedly funneled $750,000 into non-profits to get around the law that House members cannot accept travel from foreign governments. The Post based its story on a 70-page investigative report by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

There is with one big exception to the rule about House members not accepting travel from foreign governments.

I recently wrote about how former Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., and Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., traveled to Brazil last year on a visit paid for the Brazilian government under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, which is overseen by the State Department.

SOCAR said in a statement last month, “We strongly dispute the Washington Post’s characterization that SOCAR secretly played a role in the May 2013 conference in Baku.”

Davis, on his disclosure form, said the trip was paid for by the Turkish American Federal of Midwest, which now calls itself the Turkic American Federation of Midwest. Davis said the travel costs were $11,702 for himself and $11,702 for his wife.

On its website the organization, based in northwest suburban Mount Prospect, says it is a “non-profit and non-governmental organization dedicated to improve cultural, economic and social relations between the Turkish American communities and the people of Midwest.” A call and email to the organization was not returned.

Members can’t take gifts from a foreign government worth more than $350. Davis received a carpet worth more than that. Davis told me on Wednesday he will be donating the rug to the Sankofa Safe Child Initiative, 401 N. Central Park Ave.

As for getting preapproval for the trip from the same panel now investigating him, Davis told me if the committee gives him the green light, “then we do it,” adding “we don’t do research on every entity. We don’t usually do that kind of vetting.”

Craig Holman, the ethics in government lobbyist for Public Citizen, an ethics watchdog group which has a focus on congressional travel told me the House ethics panel “can be easily deceived” when it comes to “who is sponsoring trips” and “makes no effort” to independently verify information given to them from the lawmakers.

Not that lawmakers should be let off the hook. “The members should have applied a little more scrutiny themselves,” Holman said.

I asked Davis if he should have done more. Replied Davis, “You can always do more to check out things.” There is also, he said “the notion, don’t go.”

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