A lawmaker’s $10,000 campaign contribution and a resolution he introduced this year in the legislature are reviving questions about foreign influences on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill, reports WTVF-TV’s Phil Williams.
During a hurried legislative session dominated by all sorts of contentious issues, state Rep. Joe Towns found time to introduce a House resolution — HR 145 — calling for national support for the country of Azerbaijan. (Note: It died in a subcommittee; Previous post HERE.)
“Let me tell you where it came from — it actually came from friends that I know that are from Azerbaijan,” the Memphis Democrat told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
An oil-rich, predominantly Muslim country — where Eastern Europe meets western Asia — Azerbaijan has been involved in a decades-old dispute with the predominantly Christian country of Armenia over territory that both countries claim.
Towns said he agreed to introduce the resolution because Azerbaijan is a U.S. ally.
“You did not just come up with this one your own?” we asked.
“No, no, no,” Towns answered.
“And you knew nothing about the conflict between these two countries?”
“No, I did not.”
But Armenian immigrant Barry Barsoumian said, “Those brutal people, they are trying to change history by going around different states in the United States passing resolutions.”
Barsoumian discovered Towns’ resolution and could not believe anyone would ask a Tennessee lawmaker to help a country known for its human rights abuses and whose leader is seen as one of the world’s most corrupt.
“I asked him if it was Azerbaijani Embassy. He denied it,” Barsoumian recalled. “But he wouldn’t name or tell me what organization was behind it.”
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates looked at Towns’ campaign reports and discovered he introduced the resolution just two weeks after he got a total of $10,000 in campaign contributions from people out of Texas with ties to the Azerbaijani community.
“This one was probably in Texas, Houston,” Towns said, looking at his campaign disclosure.
…”Well, I don’t want to get involved in their names because this is about me,” Towns answered. “I don’t want to talk about their names and who they were.”
Still, our investigation discovered that a Turkish-Azerbaijani cultural center in Houston appears to be the common connection for all seven of the contributors, who reportedly gave either $1,000 or $1,500 each to Towns’ campaign.
“Did the people who gave you the $10,000 ask you to introduce this resolution?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Towns.
“No, they didn’t. Did not,” he responded.
“It’s purely coincidental?”
“Oh, of course.”
But Barsoumian called it “suspicious [that] somebody in Tennessee would introduce a bill for Azerbaijan and then those organizations funnel money to his campaign.”