- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - The House Ethics Committee said Monday it is continuing an investigation of nine members of Congress who went on a 2013 trip to Azerbaijan paid for by that country’s government.

The ethics panel said in a statement that lawmakers from both parties are cooperating in the investigation, which came after a separate inquiry by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

The lawmakers - six Democrats and three Republicans - have said they obtained approval for the May 2013 trip from the ethics panel. Two Houston-based nonprofit corporations reported to the panel that they were sponsoring the conference in the capital city of Baku, near the Caspian Sea. Four of the members were from Texas.

The Washington Post reported last month 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 nonprofit corporations.

Congressional rules generally bar foreign governments from paying for travel by members of Congress or otherwise trying to influence U.S. policy.

Three of the lawmakers who went on the trip are from Texas, a leading energy-producing state, while a fourth is from Oklahoma, another energy leader. Lawmakers have said the purpose of the trip was to strengthen U.S. relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, which is rich in oil and natural gas.

Texas Democratic Reps. Ruben Hinojosa and Sheila Jackson Lee attended the conference, as did Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe and Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine. Also on the trip were Democratic Reps. Yvette Clarke and Gregory Meeks of New York, Danny Davis of Illinois and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, as well as Republican Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey. Former Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, also was on the trip but is not being investigated because he did not run for re-election.

The ethics panel’s chairman, Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., and its senior Democrat, Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, said in a joint statement that extension of the Azerbaijan investigation does not necessarily indicate that an ethics violation has occurred. The lawmakers said they will make another public statement on the inquiry by Aug. 6.

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