A dual U.S. and Turkish citizen was arrested in Yerevan on an Interpol warrant from the U.S. on charges related to junkets he arranged for members of Congress to visit Azerbaijan.
Kemal Öksüz – who goes by “Kevin Oksuz” in the U.S. – also was wanted in his native Turkey for his ties to the religious movement headed by the cleric Fethullah Gülen. A headline in the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah crowed: “High-ranking Gülenist fugitive Kemal Öksüz nabbed in Armenia.”
Oksuz was arrested on August 30 on an American warrant issued a week earlier. He is wanted on suspicion of falsifying facts and submitting false statements to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an independent non-partisan body.
It's unclear what brought Oksuz to Armenia, and when, but a press release from the Armenian police said that upon moving to the country, he opened a business.
According to Armenia’s state register, a U.S. citizen, Kevin Oksuz, registered a “Destination and Event Management” firm called The Sena Group on September 25, 2017. Oksuz is named as the sole proprietor and director of the company. His physical address in the register is listed as “603 N Tazewell / - Washington Arlington 0000” (sic). The company offers a variety of tour packages to Armenia, including “Corporate and Incentive Tours” and “Executive Tours.”
Before leaving the U.S., Oksuz had been lobbying Congress and local governments on behalf of Turkey, Azerbaijan and other Turkic countries. He used a network of nonprofits tied to the Gülenist movement and charter school network; Gülen is Turkey's most-wanted man, accused of masterminding the coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016.
As first reported by the Washington Post, Oksuz was the focus of an OCE investigation into the 2013 “Vision for [the] Future” event in Baku, attended by ten members of Congress, their spouses, state legislators from 42 states and 32 staffers. The investigation found out that the trip had been secretly paid for by the Azerbaijani state oil firm SOCAR, which paid $750,000 for the event through the Assembly of Friends of Azerbaijan, a Houston-based tax-exempt nonprofit chaired by Oksuz. The sister of Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, at the time the governor of Texas, served as a director for the nonprofit.
The OCE issued 12 subpoenas and 18 information requests and interviewed 10 witnesses about the Baku junket, but decided to “take no further action with respect to any House Member or employee” after the House Ethics Committee asked it to drop the case. Oksuz refused to be interviewed by an OCE investigator, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.
The junket also included several members of the Obama administration. Former senior advisor David Plouffe, former press secretary Robert Gibbs, and former deputy chief of staff Jim Messina spoke at a SOCAR event to promote the country's pipeline projects. They also met with President Aliyev and lunched with SOCAR executives. In an interview with the newspaper Washington Diplomat, Kemal Oksuz said that each of the former Obama officials had been paid “no more than $10,000 or $15,000.”
Interviews and emails released by OCE portray Oksuz as an influential DC insider. In an email with the subject line “Pelosi’s Turk,” a lobbyist with the lobbying firm Roberti-White wrote that Oksuz “is a member of DCCC Speaker's Cabinet and by in large a progressive Democrat. Through his position he has served as the 'lobbyist,' for Turkish Americans throughout the south and southwest.” (The DCCC is the campaign organization for the Democratic Party in Congress.)
In another email, Ari Mittleman of Roberti-White wrote that Azerbaijan’s Parliament speaker, ambassador to the U.S. and head of SOCAR all “value Kemal’s opinion.”
In the documents released by the investigation, Oksuz was seen exchanging text messages with former Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, now the Trump administration’s head of NASA. Bridenstine part of the 2013 Baku junket, and on his return to Washington, he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Times stressing the importance of Azerbaijani gas pipelines to NATO security.
In a video released by the Armenian police, Oksuz was asked about the relative strength of the Armenian and Azerbaijani lobbies in the U.S.
“Armenian diaspora is strong and does a good job,” Oksuz says in the video. “Azerbaijan’s is nothing [in comparison]. They spent a lot of money on lobbying, but don’t achieve anything. Whenever a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide is introduced in Congress, Turkey tries to block it. They call and set up meetings [with Congress members], claiming that there was no genocide. Honestly, I did that myself. Because I didn’t believe [there was a genocide].”
Grigor Atanesian is a freelance journalist who covers Armenia.