When Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) and his wife Samia arrived in Bahrain in April, they were greeted with a huge welcome poster featuring oversized smiling headshots of the Burtons.

The veteran Indiana Republican, who is the third-ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, met with the crown prince, after which a local pro-government newspaper ran a picture of the two men under the headline, “Bahrain’s reforms are hailed.” The paper reported that Burton had “lauded His Majesty for his statesmanship [and] steps to modernise Bahrain and promote reforms,” amid continuing pro-democracy protests.

When the congressman returned to Washington from Bahrain, he took to the House floor to praise Bahrain’s leaders and criticize protesters. (See video of the speech below.)

Burton’s soothing words for the embattled government weren’t the only unusual thing about this trip.

The $20,966 cost of the trip, including business-class flights for Burton and his wife, was paid by a nonprofit group, the Bahrain American Councilcreated last year by the lobbying and public relations firm Policy Impact Communications to promote the Bahraini government line in Washington.

Members of Congress are not allowed to accept travel funds from any entity that “employs or retains” a lobbyist. The rule was instituted in 2007 after the Jack Abramoff scandal, which involved the corrupt lobbyist paying for luxury junkets for members of Congress and other officials.

Given the prohibition, how could a lobbyist-connected group finance Burton’s trip?  

Because the Bahrain American Council says it doesn’t have any lobbyists on its staff.

But it sure is close to them.

The Bahrain American Council is located at 1401 K Street, NW, Suite 600 in Washington. That’s the same office as Policy Impact, which does employ a registered lobbyist and thus would be barred from paying for Burton’s trip.

William Nixon, the CEO of Policy Impact and a registered lobbyist, and two other Policy Impact officials originally incorporated the Bahrain American Council and made up its board, according to the group’s articles of incorporation.

Nixon told ProPublica a new board of directors, led by current council president Khalafalla, was installed soon after the group’s creation. But Nixon remains on the group’s advisory board, which met in May. And Policy Impact employees handled our phone calls seeking comment from the Bahrain American Council. 

The current vice chairman of the Bahrain American Council is another Policy Impactexecutive, Richard Carlson (the father of conservative commentator Tucker Carlson). Until March of this year, Policy Impact itself was listed in Washington records as the corporate agent of the Bahrain American Council.

Policy Impact also distributes op-eds written council president Al Khalafalla.One Khalafalla op-ed posted on Policy Impact’s website states, “For 300 years, Bahrain has been a stable, peaceful, and tolerant land, marching steadily toward continued openness and inclusion.” Khalafalla accompanied the Burtons on their April trip.

Asked about the relationship between Policy Impact and the council, Khalafalla told ProPublica that “Policy Impact has helped with the business development of the BAC, as well as extending public relations services.” He said the council is funded by donations from private businessmen and described the group as wanting “to ensure that commercial, trade, and cultural relationships between the [U.S. and Bahrain] remain strong.”

The House Ethics Committee, which has often been criticized for lackluster oversight,approved the council’s paying for Burton’s trip.

“The ethics committees have turned the rules on their head by allowing a lobbying entity or even lobbyists to set up a non-profit and just pay for travel junkets through non-profits,” says Craig Holman of Public Citizen, who helped draft the post-Abramoff rules. “It completely defeats the purpose of the rules.”

The ethics committee declined to comment. Burton’s office did not respond to calls.

The ethics committee has a history of generous interpretations of the travel rules. For example, despite the ban on travel paid for by entities that employ lobbyists, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which employs lobbyists, has for several years paid for congressional trips to Israel through a closely related non-profit group.

But Public Citizen’s Holman says Burton’s Bahrain trip is the first example he’s seen of a K Street lobbying firm exploiting the non-profit spinoff strategy.

Since protests broke out against Bahrain’s ruling government in early 2011, Bahrain’s government has at times violently suppressed demonstrations by the country’s Shia majority population. This month, Amnesty International criticized the government for banning opposition rallies. Bahrain has also sought to shore up its alliance with the U.S., in part by hiring several Western public relations and lobbying firms. The U.S. Navy has an important base in Bahrain and the Obama administration has been supportive of the regime there.

The Bahrain American Council, created by Policy Impact in the weeks after protests began last year, is not officially connected to Bahrain’s government but has been one of the groups working in Washington to solidify support for the regime.

Nixon, Policy Impact’s CEO, told ProPublica that he had no role in organizing the Burton trip. He also said, “The Bahrain American council has no lobby function, no policy function, no government relations function to it at all. It promotes trade and business.”

But Khalafalla’s op-eds in outlets including Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller and Fox News have addressed U.S. foreign policy to Bahrain, praised the country’s royal family, and blamed Iran for stirring up discontent. The columns have not focused on questions of commerce.

“The stakes in Bahrain are too high to risk change without considering what may come next,” Khalafalla wrote in his Fox column this month“Destabilizing Bahrain would offer Iran the opportunity to exert influence or outright control over a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The U.S. will lose its valuable naval base, the headquarters of the 5th Fleet.”

The council’s website also shows Khalafalla meeting with multiple members of Congress and policy experts, including a meeting to “brief [Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)] about “the situation in Bahrain” and another with Heritage Foundation staffers to discuss the Arab Spring.

Khalafalla told ProPublica in an email that the group’s “board of directors and the legal counsel decided that BAC dont [sic] have to register as a foreign agent or a lobbyist due to the fact that BAC dont advocate for anyone and have no policy or legislative agenda before Congress or the administration.”

Khalafalla added that “Personally, I never discussed any specific issues (for or against) Bahrain with any policy maker. My role is limited to help with the visits to educational, cultural, or nonprofit groups. Interfacing with either Bahrain government or US embassy and the [U.S. Navy] Fifth fleet officials during any trip was coordinated through the respective government entities.”

Burton, who is retiring at the end of this term, extended the Bahrain trip for two days at personal expense to nearby Doha, according to travel disclosure documents.

Burton does not appear to have been publicly involved in Bahrain issues in the past. He does, however, have an existing relationship with Policy Impact.

In 2009, the firm was hired on a $1.5 million contract by the government of Kazakhstan to coordinate the establishment of a Central Asia Caucus in Congress. Burton became one of the co-chairs of the caucus, and in 2009 he received three contributions totaling $1,500 from Policy Impact employees, including the firm’s president, Nixon.

The other co-chair of the Central Asia Caucus was American Samoa Delegate Eni Faleomavaega. As we’ve previously reported, Faleomavaega, a Democrat, has taken two recent trips to Bahrain — including one in which he was accompanied by the Bahrain American Council’s Khalafalla.

When Burton arrived home in April, he delivered a speech acknowledging Bahrain’s government had made “mistakes” in its violent response to the protests but that it had since reformed. His harshest words were for the protesters.

“The demonstrators have used terrorist tactics, as I said, to try to destroy and undermine the government, and the Molotov cocktail is one of the things that they’ve been using. They’ve also been learning other things from the radicals that come in there or have been trained by the Iranians,” Burton said, adding: “Bahrain has been very supportive of our military, very supportive of our intelligence, very supportive of the Navy and the Fifth Fleet, and we need to make sure that that relationship continues for as many years as possible.”

Here’s the video of the speech:

 

 

 

This story was originally published by the independent, non-profit newsroom ProPublica.