Retiring Moran in negotiations with Azerbaijani influence group

A tower under construction, photographed at night
The SOCAR tower in Baku; Image: Wikimedia Commons

During the final weeks of his last term in the House, retiring congressman Jim Moran, a Democrat who still represented Virginia’s eighth district, negotiated jobs with a lobbying firm, an energy company and a nonprofit with ties to the government of a country that has been accused of serious human rights violations, including the recent jailing of an investigative journalist.

Moran disclosed his job hunt to the House Ethics Committee. Members can seek outside employment while still in office, but must disclose negotiations with prospective employers to the committee. Members who must recuse themselves from official matters due to a potential conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest must make public disclosures to the House Clerk’s Office. Moran recused himself from matters concerning Washington law firm and lobby shop McDermott, Will and Emery, Homeland Fuels LLC, and an organization listed as the “Assoc. of Friends of Azerbaijan” but is actually known as the Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan, or AFAZ.

Kemal Oksuz, president of AFAZ, confirmed that the group had been talking to Moran. “This is true that retiring Congressman Jim Moran and Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan entered the negotiations for employment,” he wrote in an email, adding, “He will provide consulting and advising services to AFAZ in its activities in the United States.”

According to the group’s website, those activities include fostering “friendship, understanding and cooperation between the United States and Azerbaijan.” Last February, the group worked with the Embassy of Azerbaijan to help organize an event on Capitol Hill commemorating the anniversary of the Khojaly massacre, where more than 160 Azerbaijanis were killed during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. According to AFAZ, 20 members of the House and Senate — including Moran — and 60 congressional staffers attended the event.

Oksuz also organized a conference in Baku in 2013 that featured a dizzying array of state and federal legislators, and former White House officials, most of whom did not report the trip on House ethics disclosures according to the Houston Chronicle.

It doesn’t appear that Moran joined Oksuz and his colleagues on that junket, but he did visit Baku in November 2013, courtesy of the Humpty Dumpty Institute according to his personal financial disclosure. Moran also served on the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.

AFAZ, currently based in Houston, has not registered with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, though Oksuz says they will after they relocate to Washington in early 2015.

According to the Houston Chronicle, AFAZ “operates as a U.S.-based public relations arm of SOCAR,” which is in turn wholly controlled by the Azerbaijani government. The nonprofit lists Rauf Mammadov, director of SOCAR America, as its treasurer.

The Washington Business Journal recently reported that SOCAR America bought a DuPont Circle office building, and that it plans to expand its U.S. operations and influence. The building purchase and Moran’s employment negotiations are another indication of Azerbaijan’s efforts to up the nation’s influence profile in Washington.

At home, the country’s track record on human rights has not been sterling.

Nongovernmental watchdog groups, including Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly called out human rights abuses in the Central Asian nation, citing the “Azerbaijani government’s systematic crackdown on human rights defenders and other perceived government critics.”

On Dec. 5, just days before Moran said his negotiations with AFAZ began, the country arrested Khadija Ismayilova, who reports for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government. Ismayilova, who exposes government corruption, has faced attacks before.

Moran could not be reached for comment.

Update: Over e-mail on Thursday, Oksuz added:

AFAZ is neither lobbying firm nor energy company. It is 501 (c) 6, non-profit organization certified by IRS.

During Khojaly Tragedy, 613 people had been killed brutally by Armenians, over 1200 we tortured and 155 remain still missing.

AFAZ is not representing either the Azeri Goverment or the Embassy in DC. So I have no idea whether or not AFAZ is supposed be registered in the Dept of Justice. I need to consult with our legal counsel.

He later added:

Furthermore, AFAZ is not the US Arm of Socar.

Questions regarding AFAZ’s sources of funding did not receive an immediate reply. This post will be updated if and when we receive a response.

Moran Ethics Disclosure by Sunlight Foundation