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Azerbaijan ‘paid to influence’ American Congress

25 May 2018

The Azerbaijani Laundromat investigation has claimed that an Azerbaijani-American paid money to influence American policy in the favour of Azerbaijan. ‘Baku’s Man in America’, published on 23 May by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), claimed that Adil Baguirov, a businessman based in Dayton, Ohio and a vocal member of the Azerbaijani diaspora, received $253,150 months after his non-profit organisation held a conference in Baku in 2013 that was attended by 10 members of the US Congress, many of whom, upon their return in the US, spoke favorably about Azerbaijan.

According to the OCCRP, Barguirov is an ‘influential American oil and gas consultant of Azerbaijani origin who worked to influence US policy in his native country’s favour’. The investigation said the precise origins of the money Baguirov received are unknown, hidden behind secretive shell companies, but that there is evidence that Azerbaijan’s ruling elite was behind it.

‘The conferences came at a sensitive time for US–Azerbaijani relations. At the time, a consortium of major oil companies — including Azerbaijan’s state-owned SOCAR, BP, Russia’s Lukoil, and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) — was seeking exemptions from US sanctions against Iran, which affected its work in the vast Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea and its plans for the so-called Southern Gas Corridor to pipe the gas to Europe’, the investigation found.

It said that five days after the conference, President Obama ordered further tightening of US sanctions on Iran, but with an exception for ‘certain activities relating to the pipeline project to supply natural gas from the Shah Deniz gas field in Azerbaijan to Europe and Turkey’, as the White House press secretary stated it.

‘Baguirov’s Washington lobbying in the interests of Azerbaijan goes far beyond the 2013 conference. He has also helped organise other US-Azeri conferences in Washington, repeatedly testified before the House in favor of US military aid to Azerbaijan, served as the coordinator of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus, and worked prominently in a Houston-based company that claims to have organized a trip by the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, to the White House’, the OCCRP reported.

The investigation stated that Baguirov and his father served in numerous advisory roles to the Azerbaijani and Russian governments respectively. ‘Baguirov did all this while holding American, Azerbaijani, and, it also appears, Russian citizenship until at least 2005’, it reads.

When contacted by the OCCRP for comment, Baguirov said the payment he received was none of their business.

Lobbying against Armenia

The investigation said that between 2008 and 2016, Baguirov was also invited almost annually to advise on foreign economic and military aid budgets for Azerbaijan and Armenia at the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Matters.

‘The transcripts of his testimonies show Baguirov acting as a counter to Armenian interests in Washington[…] When he first testified in 2008, he recommended greater equity between aid given to the two countries, but by 2012, he was calling for aid to Armenia to be reduced to zero, while requesting $26 million from USAID and $3.9 million in military aid for Azerbaijan’, the investigation said.

It said Baguirov remained silent on the Azerbaijani government’s poor human rights record while in 2014, as he protested the State Department’s proposed budget for the financial year he claimed that ‘someone’ had ‘twisted and changed the spirit’ of the United States’ ‘neutral’ position.

The investigation said Baguirov’s Houston-based non-profit, the US Azeris Network (USAN), describes itself as a ‘genuine grassroots advocacy and voter education network’ for Azerbaijani-Americans and other Turkic Americans, ‘created by the grassroots, for the grassroots’. Much of its activity, however, appeared to advance the interests of Azerbaijan, the investigation said.

‘USAN publicly accused Armenia that year of providing the Committee with “false or exaggerated information, whilst asking for tens of millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money” through its “paid representative of the Armenian lobby” ’, the report said.

It also said his lobbying raised the question of whether he should have registered as a foreign agent, as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires people representing the interests of foreign countries to do.

‘Although the statute is loosely defined and contains a number of exemptions and loopholes, Josh Rosenstein, a lawyer at Sandler Reiff, said “this case raises red flags and raises questions that the Justice Department may be interested in having answered” ’, the investigation said.

Another investigation by the OCCRP found that over a $1.5 million was paid to Baku-based organisation Renaissance Associates, which, in return ‘engaged a US lobbying firm to orchestrate praise for Azerbaijan and had its representatives make thousands of dollars in campaign donations, including to Senators and Representatives who sat on committees that determine foreign aid budgets’.

The investigation called ‘US Lobbying Firm Launders Azerbaijan’s Reputation — And Gets “Laundromat” Cash’, also published on 23 May suggested that at the core of both the European and US lobbying efforts is the same man — Elkhan Suleymanov, an Azerbaijani parliamentarian, who’s pro-government organisation worked ‘hand-in-hand with Renaissance, even using the same office space’, but had no formal connections.

The investigation found that for the past 14 years, Renaissance’s only apparent activity had been its relationship with Bob Lawrence & Associates (BL&A), a lobbying firm in Alexandria, Virginia.

‘Renaissance is BL&A’s sole international client. Quarterly lobbying reports filed by the firm show that, between July 2012 and December 2015, its income from Renaissance totalled $1,533,000 — close to the amount that Renaissance itself received from the Laundromat around this time, according to available data’, the investigation said.

It found that in 2006, BL&A handled logistics for President Aliyev’s visit to the White House, and three years later it arranged Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe’s visit to Baku to speak with the government.

The company’s lobbying reports suggest its ‘specific lobbying issues have included US defence appropriations in the region; the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia; and a critical oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey that lies nearby’.

According to the OCCRP, between 2008 and 2016, BL&A’s president Bob Lawrence was annually invited to recommend foreign aid budgets to Azerbaijan and Armenia before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Matters.

‘His testimonies frequently emphasised Azerbaijan’s oil and gas resources and infrastructure as “critical to the security and wellbeing of the people of Europe” and have repeatedly called for the elimination of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which bans direct US aid to the Azerbaijani government.’

‘He also reportedly informed the subcommittee that Armenia was a ‘“rogue nation […] clearly protecting criminals” and that it commits human rights violations. He is much more forgiving of Azerbaijan. Though admitting in his first testimony that “8 or 9 journalists have been beaten or jailed,” he asserts that “President Aliyev pardoned most of these” ’, the investigation suggests.

The investigation also showed that BL&A subcontracted US lobbying firms, such as Crane Group, to lobby the US Senate and House of Representatives on “state and foreign relations” and provide “assistance to Azerbaijan for at least $250,000”.

‘Over the same period, BL&A spent $280,000 contracting former Congressman Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) through his firm, Solomon P Ortiz Holdings LLC, to lobby on “strategic relations” between the US and Azerbaijan. Six weeks after this work began in 2012, he wrote a glowing blog post on Azerbaijan in the Huffington Post. Ortiz also has a long history of promoting Azerbaijan’s interests in Capitol Hill. In 2004 he co-founded the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus, a group of legislators coordinated by Laundromat recipient Baguirov’, it reads.

BL&A stated that it collaborates with the Association for Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan (ACSDA), a pro-government non-profit organisation controlled by Elkhan Suleymanov.

‘A former German politician, Eduard Lintner, who received payments from the Azerbaijani Laundromat and subsequently praised the country’s universally-panned elections as fair, described ACSDA as the source of his payments’, the investigation states.