BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
The Turkish government, its lobbying firms, and Turkish-American organizations have spent millions of dollars to take members of Congress and their staffs on all-expenses-paid trips to Turkey with the intent of buying their allegiance.
This is standard practice for Washington’s influence peddlers. Understandably, Turkish power brokers would want to sway congressional decision-making, as long as the trips follow proper legal procedures. However, as investigative journalist Shane Goldmacher revealed last week in the National Journal, members of Congress and their paymasters often manipulate the nebulous rules to accomplish their self-serving interests.
Goldmacher begins his article, ‘How Lobbyists Still Fly Through Loopholes,’ by describing the globe-trotting adventures of a pair of political odd fellows chasing the almighty dollar: “Dennis Hastert and Dick Gephardt couldn’t stand each other when they led Congress a decade ago. But now they’ve moved to K Street, where the flood of money tends to wash over such personal differences. These days, they work hand in hand as two of Turkey’s top lobbyists, with their respective firms pocketing most of a $1.4 million annual lobbying contract.” Not surprisingly, Republican Hastert and Democrat Gephardt accompanied eight members of Congress on an “all-expenses-paid journey” to Turkey last April.
The National Journal article covers congressional trips to several countries, including Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Israel. Under the subtitle, ‘Turkey Exploits the Biggest Loophole,’ Goldmacher discloses the extensive preparations made by Hastert’s firm for the congressional trip to Turkey, even though lobbyists are prevented under the rules from planning or paying for lawmakers’ visits: “Lobbyists have been intimately involved in the months of planning for the trip, with dozens of back-and-forth emails, phone calls, and meetings on Capitol Hill. As the trip neared, one lobbyist at Hastert’s firm, Laurie McKay, held conference calls and emailed daily with the schedulers of the eight House members who participated: Republicans Virginia Foxx, George Holding, Adam Kinzinger, Todd Rokita, Lee Terry, and Ed Whitfield; and Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and Chellie Pingree. McKay even escorted three of them to Washington Dulles International Airport and helped them check in with Turkish Airlines.”
Ignoring the ban on lobbyists accompanying members of Congress on overseas excursions, Hastert, Gephardt, Robert Mangas, Janice O’Connell, and an undisclosed lobbyist with the Caspian Group joined the congressional delegation in Turkey. Goldmacher explains that “the Turkey trip was sanctioned under a 1961 law, the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, [MECEA] which allows foreign governments to shuttle members of Congress and their staffs abroad if the State Department has approved the destination nations for ‘cultural exchange’ trips. About 60 countries have such clearances.” Azerbaijan and Turkey are among the 60, Armenia is not! The Armenian government should make the necessary arrangements to include Armenia in the MECEA program.
The National Journal further reports: “A long list of nonprofits supportive of Turkey have paid for congressional travel there.” One such prominent group is the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA). Interestingly, besides running TCA as a nonprofit, its president, Lincoln McCurdy, “dishes out campaign cash to pro-Turkey politicians as treasurer of a political action committee.”
The National Journal’s revelations are reinforced by LegiStorm.com, a website that closely monitors congressional travel and finances. It discloses that 615 congressional visits were made to Turkey since 2000, at a cost of $3.5 million, paid by the following nonprofit organizations: American Friends of Turkey, Council of Turkic American Associations, Institute of Interfaith Dialogue for World Peace, Istanbul Center, Maryland Institute for Dialogue, Mid-Atlantic Federation of Turkic American Associations, Pacifica Institute, Rumi Forum for Interfaith Dialogue, Turkic American Alliance, Turkish-American Business Council, Turkish-American Business Forum Inc., Turkish American Federation of Midwest, Turkish Coalition of America, Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists, Turkish Cultural Center NY, Turkish Foreign Economic Relations Board, and Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians.
In 2013 alone, 87 congressional visits were made to Turkey at a cost of $640,000, and 36 trips to Azerbaijan at a cost of $262,000. During that same period, no member of Congress was sponsored to visit Armenia. Only one trip was organized to Armenia and Artsakh (Karabagh) for California State Assemblymen and Los Angeles City Councilmen by the ANCA-Western Region, in collaboration with the Armenian Consulate.
Clearly, such trips make members of Congress more sympathetic toward their host country. Unless Armenian-Americans and Armenia begin sponsoring similar trips, members of Congress could become more favorable toward Turkey and Azerbaijan, and less supportive of Armenia and Artsakh.