From Ankara to Istanbul, Capitol Hill lawmakers and staff took 159 privately sponsored trips to Turkey during the 113th Congress, putting the nation second only to Israel in popularity as a foreign destination.
But a recent report suggests hidden sources, never vetted by the House Ethics Committee, footed the bill for five-star hotels and dining during some members' all-expenses-paid jaunts. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., accepted an $8,700 nine-day trip, paid for by the Council of Turkic American Associations, according to documents filed with the Ethics Committee. She flew business class in May 2013 and stayed at Istanbul's Crowne Plaza & Hagia Sophia and the Rixos Grand Ankara.
Clarke's itinerary included a three-day conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, which later attracted the attention of ethics investigators and became the focus of a probe into alleged state-funded travel.
The New York-based nonprofit also paid for Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., to travel in Turkey before attending the conference. He stayed at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, a former palace converted into a luxury hotel with suites that promise "the exclusive ambiance that was once enjoyed by the majestic Sultans of the Ottoman Empire."
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., and her fiance accepted a similar package, paid for by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians. In addition to hotel stays, the nonprofit spent $1,500 on meals and taxis for the couple and the congresswoman's plane ticket. The TCAE did not cooperate with ethics investigators.
The Office of Congressional Ethics talked to the CTAA's president, Furkan Kosar, and three other nonprofit group leaders, who admitted they used the Bosphorus Atlantic Cultural Association of Friendship and Cooperation (BAKIAD) to arrange and finance domestic expenses for the side-trips some members and staffers took to Turkey.
"The sponsors believed that BAKIAD’s funding comes from donations from Turkish nationals," stated the report released by the OCE on Oct. 7. "One sponsor thought BAKIAD might receive commissions from hotels and restaurants for using their services." BAKIAD handled transportation to and from the airport, currency exchange, hotel reservations, guides and sightseeing, without asking for repayment from the nonprofits. But BAKIAD's involvement was not disclosed in pre- and post-travel documents submitted to the House Ethics Committee for vetting.
"Some red flags were missed," said Public Citizen's Craig Holman, alleging the committee did not ask enough questions of the nonprofits.
After an interview with OCE, Kosar disclosed the Istanbul-based BAKIAD's involvement. He later wire-transferred $2,280 to repay BAKIAD for the amount listed on the disclosure forms.
House Ethics Committee staffers appear to have done their due diligence, under the rules and laws Congress has created to vet privately sponsored travel. The committee's own report on Azerbaijan shows staffers emailed reported travel sponsors to confirm statements and itineraries on pre-travel forms.
"The committee’s report was very clear that they appear to have been lied to, and they’ve referred it to [the Justice Department] for criminal prosecution," said Dan Schwager, former chief counsel of the House Ethics Committee. "I don’t know how much more seriously you can take it."
"Do they want the committee to polygraph sponsors?" Schwager chided, in response to watchdogs' concerns. He said auditing the books of any group who wanted to sponsor a trip is not a "reasonable exercise" under current rules.
According to its biennial report, the House Ethics Committee received 4,593 travel requests during the 113th Congress.
BAKIAD was established in 2006 to oversee and coordinate trips and events related to North America. According to the OCE, the group may have funded and coordinated the privately sponsored congressional travel within Turkey dating back several years. Groups that admitted coordinating with BAKIAD have paid for at least $136,000 in travel and 38 trips for members and staff, according to a travel disclosure database maintained by LegiStorm.
A 2007 overhaul of congressional travel rules, prompted by the scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison, put stricter rules in place to prevent special interests from footing flying lawmakers around the world. But the rewrite left one "loophole" in place, said Campaign Legal Center's Meredith McGehee.
While lobbyists, lobbying firms and foreign principals are prohibited from arranging or financing trips, members can accept free travel paid by nonprofits, who are not required to disclose their contributions.
But the Azerbaijan case "is like drawing a roadmap about how to evade the limits in the law for who can pay for travel," McGehee said in an interview.
Holman suggested Congress needs to carefully review how nonprofit sponsors plan to pay for overseas journeys, like the heavily scrutinized trip to Azerbaijan.
"Members and staff who go on these trips are going to suffer the political consequences," Holman said.
Related: Ethics Office Releases Report Detailing Lawmaker Travel to Azerbaijan Pressure Mounts for Release of Azerbaijan Report Ethics Battle Still Brewing Over Azerbaijan Travel Azerbaijan Travel Probe Shows Strained Ties Between Congress’ Ethics Cops See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.