WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have abandoned privately funded trips to Turkey, once a favorite destination for such junkets, after investigations by House ethics panels and USA TODAY indicated many of these trips had been illegally funded.
No lawmakers have accepted a privately sponsored trip to Turkey since May 2015, with the exception of one congressman who made an August trip sponsored by a Norwegian group, according to data complied by the Clerk of the House.
That wasn’t always the case. In 2011, more than 100 members of Congress and their staff accepted private trips from different non-profit groups. But an ethics investigation last year revealed evidence that a Turkish religious movement was hiding the true source of funding for many trips provided to lawmakers and their staff. That probe, by the Office of Congressional Ethics, was leaked to The Washington Post in May 2015. USA TODAY later found about 200 congressional trips that appeared to have been improperly funded.
The Turkish Coalition of America used to be a frequent sponsor of congressional travel to Turkey. Though the organization is not associated with the Islamic movement that sponsored the improper trips, the coalition has not sponsored any congressional travel in the past year. Louette Ragusa, executive assistant at the Turkish Coalition of America, said a combination of factors led to cuts in travel. “With the events going on in Turkey and also being election year, our organization has decided to hold back on trips,” she said.
Prior election years have not seen the same drop. In 2012, the organization sponsored 30 trips to Turkey.
Fatih Oke, press counselor at the Turkish Embassy, said that while congressional trips have declined, official congressional travel — paid for by Congress — has increased, ruling out the idea lawmakers may be trying to distance themselves from Turkey. “Many of these visits have allowed members of Congress to have meetings with Turkish leaders,” Oke said.
USA TODAY found government-sponsored trips reported by Congress dipped from 110 in 2013 to 92 in 2015.
Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee said the ethics investigation could have contributed to cutbacks. “That scrutiny has certainly created some hesitation there,” she said. “It generated a ton of bad press, and appropriately so.”
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, agreed. “The fact these organizations were sponsoring 100 members of Congress and then suddenly dropping to zero would raise red flags that the organizations themselves or their funders are not supposed to be sponsoring these kinds of trips,” Holman said.
The drop in travel could also be attributed to increasing tensions between the United States and Turkey, said Jock Friedly, founder and president of LegiStorm, an organization that discloses Congress’s financial information. “In the past, you could count on many trips happening each year, so the fact we haven’t had any in the past year is pretty striking,” Friedly said.
U.S. lawmakers have been critical of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on political opponents, which has included shuttering major national media outlets. When Erdogan visited Washington in March, Congress was out of session and lawmakers did not come back to town to meet with him — even members of the congressional Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations.