Saturday, August 15, 2015

Azerbaijan state-owned oil company signs DC fims

An Azerbaijan state-owned oil company has signed up with two public affairs firms following a congressional inquiry that involved questions about the source of funding for lawmaker travel to the country.

The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) hired both 30 Point Strategies and Global Policy Initiatives last month, according to new disclosure forms filed with the Justice Department this week that appeared in a government database Friday morning.

Firms Global Policy Initiatives and 30 Point Strategies will “advise and represent SOCAR on public affairs and government relations matters before the media, United States Congress and the Executive Branch,” the documents, signed on July 22, say.

Global Policy Initiatives will earn up to $7,500 per month for its services, while the company will pay 30 Point Strategies up to $17,500 per month — relatively small sums in comparison to other foreign lobbying contracts, which can run into the millions annually.

The forms are required to be filed to the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a World War II-era law aimed at tamping down on Nazi propaganda within the United States.

A duo of congressional investigations earlier this year focused on whether lawmakers knew the source of funding for travel and accommodations to a conference held in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2013 — which SOCAR sponsored.

The first inquiry, by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), found that while lawmakers may not have known the source of money for the convention before they went, it was apparent that SOCAR was largely behind it once they arrived.

OCE then forwarded its findings to the House Ethics Committee, which ultimately cleared lawmakers of any wrongdoing.

The OCE concluded that SOCAR funneled $750,000 through two U.S.-based non-profits that arranged trips for some members of Congress to conceal the source of the funds.

Ethics watchdogs became concerned that a potential direct involvement by a corporation or foreign government in congressional travel could have run afoul of gift rules.

The ethics panel in July said it was referring the “third parties” involved in setting up the travel to the Justice Department to see if they had engaged in a “criminal conspiracy to lie to Congress.”

A letter released by the committee does not name the third parties, but lawmakers have said that they relied on assurances from two Texas-based non-profits — the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) — that they had sponsored the travel.

Lawmakers, not the state-owned company, were the targets of the probes and SOCAR has insisted that it has always followed all compliance rules regarding sponsorship activity. It says it never tried to hide its involvement in the conference itself, which featured large advertisements from the company.

“We have cooperated fully. We are therefore disappointed that the compliance procedures may not have been followed correctly by the trip’s sponsors and we are unclear why these disclosures were omitted,” the company said in a statement following a Washington Post story about the OCE investigation in May.

In June, the company released a statement – through Global Policy Initiatives – that said it would be working to find “new partners that specialize in event and trip organizing along with the associated compliance issues.”

“In addition, SOCAR will continue to advance the work of groups like AFAZ for their excellent work in the public diplomacy space,” SOCAR said in the statement.

Additionally, 30 Point Strategies reached out to The Hill in May — also on behalf of SOCAR — after a story detailing the OCE investigation in order to clarify points in the piece, raising questions about when the firms' representation of SOCAR actually began.

FARA regulations require firms to ink contracts and submit them to the Justice Department within 10 days of doing work for a foreign client.

"30 Point Strategies and Global Policy Initiatives began our representation of SOCAR on July 1. Our work prior to July 1 was on behalf of the attorneys who represented SOCAR during the congressional investigation," said Joshua Silberberg, who works for both firms, in an email. "This work was performed under a pre-existing retainer for support of any or all of their clients which remains in force today."

"30 Point Strategies and Global Policy Initiatives appreciate the confidence that SOCAR has shown in our joint capabilities by signing the two firms to the contract filed with the FARA office," he said.

While entities that represent foreign countries or companies in legal matters are exempt from filing through FARA, the law's exemptions end when firms begin engaging in media outreach, compliance professionals told The Hill.

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