Lawmaker Says $10K Contribution, Resolution Just 'Coincidence'
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- 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.
Last year, NewsChannel 5 Investigates first revealed how advocates for foreign countries were taking your lawmakers on expensive junkets.
Now, we've discovered a case of mysterious donors handing out money for a legislative campaign.
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.
"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.
"You had a fundraiser in Houston?" we asked.
"Uh-huh. I've had fundraisers in other places before. That's true."
"Who hosted that fundraiser?"
"Well, my friends. Friends of mine."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Who in particular?"
"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."
One of the contributors listed on Towns' campaign report as having given a thousand dollars first told us, "That's wrong information. I don't know anyone from Tennessee."
Later he changed his story, saying "I remember something like that. I never met him. I did it through my friends, my community."
Adding to the mystery: almost a third of the money supposedly came from two people who live in an apartment in one of Houston's roughest neighborhoods.
In fact, we identified $13,000 in contributions in the last two years to various candidates around the country from just one low-rent apartment.
So we went back to Representative Towns.
"Does that strike you as odd?" we asked.
"See, in order for me to know that," he responded, "I would have to know the lay of the land down there, the people. I don't know. I don't know."
But when Towns' resolution came up in committee, members of the Armenian community had already lobbied other lawmakers to kill the bill.
The resolution never even got a vote -- a strange end to what some consider a strange piece of legislation.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Towns, "You attend a fundraiser and then suddenly you are introducing this resolution. Do you understand why someone might be suspicious?"
"I can't deal with people's suspicion," he said. "I don't address their suspicion. The fact is that it happens all the time."
Some of the contributors appear to have connections to groups who've taken Tennessee officials on free trips to Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Towns was supposed to go on one of those trips last year, but he wasn't able to go.
Still, he did sponsor another House resolution that essentially accused Armenia of war crimes.
That resolution actually passed the House on a 93-0 vote.
So why would Azerbaijan care about what the Tennessee House thinks about world affairs?
It appears to be part of an orchestrated PR campaign to show that world opinion is on their side.
Towns said that he hopes it leads to better understanding of all the countries in that region.