Ethics Probe Halts Congressional Travel To Turkey; Free Trips Overall Have Slowed

by Will Tucker

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., is chairman of the House Ethics Committee. He took a free trip to Turkey in 2011. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

House lawmakers and their staffers used to make about 150 stops there a year on their privately sponsored jaunts around the world. Then came a massive ethics investigation, and they all stopped taking those free trips to Turkey -- cold.

Not a single House member or staffer has disclosed a privately sponsored trip to Turkey since the Office of Congressional Ethics in October 2015 released documents connected to the largest ethics investigation since the days of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. OpenSecrets Blog collected the data from the Clerk of the House, which keeps records on privately sponsored trips filed to the House Ethics Committee.

Last year, the OCE found that a network of Turkic-American nonprofit groups based in the U.S. lied about the true source of funding for a junket to Baku, Azerbaijan in 2013; the trip took 10 members of Congress to the small Eurasian city with money from Azerbaijan's state oil company, where they attended a conference put on by the company to tout its natural gas interests. The lawmakers said they had no idea their trip to the ostentatious energy conference was paid for by a foreign government that employed lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

After investigating the Turkic non-profits further, the OCE called into question the true source of funding not just for the Azerbaijan junket but for more than 109 trips to Turkey in previous years. It appeared the groups, in some instances, simply didn't have the money necessary to pay for the expensive trips they organized for members and staffers.

But when the probe was kicked over to the Ethics Committee -- the panel of lawmakers who investigate their peers, and sometimes takes referrals from the OCE, which is a quasi-independent outfit -- the committee dropped the matter, clearing the members involved of wrongdoing. While the panel sent some documents relating to the sponsoring organizations over to the Justice Department for possible further action, Justice has been silent about whether it is pursuing an investigation.

The chairman of the Ethics Committee, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), had traveled on the Turkic groups' dime himself, as had another member of the panel, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).

Before OCE's investigation into the case of the Turkic non-profits, lawmakers were taking more and more trips paid for not by the U.S. or foreign governments, but by private organizations and nonprofits. Many of these trips were domestic -- policy conferences are often cited as reasons for the travel -- but many were international voyages during which members and staff stayed in luxurious hotels, saw famous sites and got cozy with nonprofits funded by special interests.

This year, privately sponsored travel for members of Congress has slowed down slightly overall, dropping almost to 2011 levels after having increased from that year through 2015.

The slowdown comes after a coalition of ethics watchdog groups in Washington, spurred by the OCE's report, called for House Speaker Paul Ryan to place a moratorium on the practice.

"These trips have become a tool for special interests, foreign governments, and foreign business interests to try to gain access and influence to our elected leaders while obfuscating the source of funding for the trips," a letter to Ryan signed by four groups in November reads.

Ryan didn't respond, but some lawmakers and sponsors may have gotten the message.

"These trips to Turkey got terrible press and deservedly so," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups that signed the letter. "Because the press coverage of the Turkey trips and the legitimate questions raised about the way they were funded, members are appropriately gun shy."