Ethics watchdog seeks probe of Armenian-American group

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — A high-profile ethics organization on Wednesday asked federal agencies to investigate the Armenian National Committee of America for alleged campaign-finance and lobbying violations.

In a seven-page complaint, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asserts that the Armenian-American group failed to register either as a domestic lobbying group or as a foreign agent despite its political work and its close ties to an Armenian political party.

The Armenian National Committee of America is one of the country's most prominent ethnic organizations and has worked closely with members of Congress on Armenian genocide commemorative resolutions.

"We're not saying they should be out of business," said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who's now the head of the private Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "We're saying there are laws and they should be following them."

Sloan attached 161 pages worth of exhibits in support of the allegations.

Armenian National Committee of America officials denounced the charges as unfounded.

"We've taken a preliminary look at (the) allegations, and they are without merit and full of inaccuracies and misrepresentations," said Elizabeth Chouldjian, the Armenian National Committee's communications director.

Chouldjian declined to undertake a point-by-point rebuttal of the complaint, but she said that "the real story is why this is being brought up now." She noted that the complaint was filed about two months before the annual Armenian genocide commemoration on April 24; she didn't elaborate on a potential motive for the complaint's timing.

The Armenian National Committee of America describes itself on its Web site as "the largest and most influential Armenian-American grass-roots political organization." It's active in regions with large Armenian-American populations, including New Jersey, Florida and California.

Its allies are rallying renewed support for an Armenian genocide resolution that collapsed in the last Congress. Under presidents of both political parties, the Pentagon and State Department have opposed the resolution as an insult to Turkey, which denies that mass deaths from 1915 to 1923 amounted to genocide.

The genocide commemoration will pose a dilemma for President Barack Obama. As a candidate, he voiced support for the resolution. As president, he called Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Monday for what the White House called a "warm and productive" chat.

The genocide resolution is also at the heart of the new complaint.

"Circumstantial evidence indicates that ANCA and its current or former executive directors . . . have lobbied Congress and the executive branch heavily with regard to perennial congressional Armenian genocide resolutions," the complaint says.

The complaint cites interviews and news releases in which Armenian National Committee of America leaders tout their efforts to sway Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., among others.

The committee hasn't registered as a lobbyist with either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Failure to register can be a felony offense, though Sloan said potential problems often were resolved simply by registering after the fact.

The Armenian Assembly of America, the nation's other prominent Armenian-American organization, is registered and reported spending $182,000 on lobbying last year.

"These are the rules, and everybody has to follow them," Sloan said.

The multi-pronged complaint asks the Internal Revenue Service to review potential tax violations and asks the Justice Department to open a criminal probe. It also asks the House and Senate to open "companion inquiries" into the lobbying allegations.

Citing news accounts, a U.S. Embassy study and the research of Heather Gregg, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., the complaint contends that the Armenian National Committee of America is "an arm" of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a political party that's part of Armenia's ruling coalition.

Agents of foreign political parties are required to register with the Justice Department.

The Armenian National Committee of America can endorse political candidates, as a 501(c)(4) organization. The affiliated Armenian National Committee of America Western Region, based in Glendale, Calif., cannot because it's a 501(c)(3) organization. The complaint alleges that the Western office nonetheless participated in the national organization's candidate endorsements, in part by sharing a Web site.

Sloan said the complaint arose from "a tip" received late last year.

Sloan's nonprofit, six-year-old ethics group claims no partisan affiliation, and it's previously filed ethics complaints about lawmakers of both parties.

ON THE WEB

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

Armenian National Committee of America

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Armenia: Obscure issue could challenge a President Obama

Will lenders go along with Obama's housing plan?

A year later, Tibetans simmer with resentment toward China

Bird flu remains a threat to humans, U.N. says

Appeals court blocks release of Guantanamo detainees into U.S.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service