MERCEDES, RGV – The House Ethics Committee said Friday it found no evidence of wrongdoing by a bipartisan group of ten lawmakers, including Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, who went on a 2013 trip to Azerbaijan paid for by that country’s government.
The Associated Press reports that lawmakers obtained prior approval for the trip from the ethics panel “in good faith” and did not know that two groups that claimed to sponsor the trip had apparently lied about the true source of their funding, the ethics panel said.
“When a House member …seeks and receives advance written permission to accept a gift” such as travel, “that permission acts a shield to protect the individual from future action by this committee,” the ethics panel said in a 28-page report.
The panel said it issued 12 subpoenas and reviewed 190,000 pages of materials during its investigation, but was hampered by a lack of cooperation from key witnesses, including the Houston business executive who organized the trip.
Two Houston-based nonprofit corporations had reported to the ethics panel that they were sponsoring the May 2013 conference in the capital city of Baku, near the Caspian Sea, the Associated Press reports.
The Washington Post reported in May that Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company allegedly paid $750,000 to cover travel expenses and gifts for the lawmakers by sending funds through the nonprofits.
In response to the Washington Post story, Rep. Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, Texas, offered this comment to the Rio Grande Guardian:
“Prior to the trip to Azerbaijan and Turkey, I sought approval from the U.S. House Committee on Ethics to travel. On May 23, 2013, the Committee approved travel for my spouse and I to visit Azerbaijan and Turkey. I relied upon this written authorization in deciding to travel overseas. I believed the purpose of the trip was to strengthen U.S.-Turkey and U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. I received souvenirs of what I believed to be of minimal value and in compliance with the House Gift rule.
“Almost a year after the trip, I learned that an investigation was being conducted into the funding source of this trip. My staff and I have fully cooperated with the investigation. Importantly, the report notes that there is no evidence to suggest that Members of Congress who went on the trip knew that impermissible sponsors and organizers may have been involved and that Members relied on the sponsors’ representations in good faith. I look forward to this issue being resolved in an expeditious manner and I thank the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Committee on Ethics for their professionalism.”
Click here for the Associated Press story posted in U.S. News & World Report.