A Turkish-American businessman pleaded guilty Monday to secretly funneling money from the government of Azerbaijan for a 2013 all-expense-paid trip attended by 10 members of Congress and dozens of their staff.
Five years have passed since Houston-based businessman Kemal Oksuz arranged the junket that lured lawmakers to Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku, along the Caspian Sea. Oksuz insisted on disclosure forms that his nonprofit Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians did not accept outside funding for the trip, but prosecutors learned it was financed by the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, or SOCAR.
Arrested by Armenian authorities in September, Oksuz found himself wanted for extradition by two countries: the United States and Turkey, which is pursuing him in its international anti-Gulenist purge.
Ultimately sent to Washington,Oksuz pleaded guilty Monday to his five-count U.S. indictment connected to his lies about a trip that sparked a U.S. House of Representatives investigation that cleared the attending lawmakers of violating ethics rules.
Among the most generous of these donors is Kemal Oksuz, a Houston businessman and the founder of both the Turquoise Council and AFAZ. In 2013, Oksuz was also listed as a board member of the Turkic American Alliance, the nonprofit which claims to bring together the various Turkish American organizations that paid for the travel that was not picked up by the Turquoise Council. Oksuz and his immediate family members have donated more than $103,000 to federal politicians since 2011, according to OpenSecrets.org data.
That includes $26,200 they gave to four members of the Baku delegation, including $5,000 to then Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), just six days before the event – which Okusz attended as well. They increased their giving to Stockman by another $7,000 later in the summer of 2013.
Oksuz is the former executive director of the Niagara Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that lists Fethullah Gulen as its chairman. Oksuz, who did not return calls or emails seeking comment, was also the co-owner of Target Design Management, a Houston construction firm, which has done work worth tens of millions of dollars for a small, close-knit group of organizations with strong links to the Gulen movement. According to the firm’s website, its current projects include a $13 million contract with Harmony Public Schools and a $59 million contract with North American University. In fact, the ties between Harmony and Oksuz’ firm are so close, and the relationship so lucrative, that the firm attracted national attention soon after it was established.
Okusz appears to have multilayered political connections. Milla Perry Jones, the sister of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is on the AFAZ board. Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign received at least $25,000 from this network of donors. And Okusz’ social media accounts are littered with photos of him with prominent American politicians — including numerous shots of him in Baku on the 2013 trip, with, among others, Bridenstine and Turner. Oksuz also appears in pictures from the 2013 visit by Bridenstine to the Houston-Baku event.
Oksuz declined to comment. AFAZ’ attorney, Chris Rizek, said in a statement that he “believes the conference served as a forum to advance shared goals and greater understanding between the United States and a key ally in an important region of the world.” He did not respond to questions about whether Oksuz knew of a coordinated effort to raise funds for members of Congress who might help develop gas interests in the region.
In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fethullah Gulen told followers they may not visit him at his estate in Pennsylvania without first donating to their local member of Congress; Gulen denied saying that.
Attendees included Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat from New Mexico; Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican; and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat.
Another Texas Republican on the trip, Steve Stockman, received a 10-year sentence last month in an unrelated fraud case.
Oksuz faces sentencing on Feb. 11, 2019.