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TN Commissioner Offers Congrats For 'Rigged' Re-election

Posted at 10:01 PM, May 16, 2014
and last updated 2015-09-07 14:35:56-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Congratulations on your rigged election!

That's the message that critics say a member of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's cabinet sent with his letter to a foreign president.

Few people took last fall's Azerbaijani presidential elections seriously.

The re-election of Ilham Aliyev -- who took over from his own father a decade ago -- was widely seen by the international community as rigged.

Still, that did not stop Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security Bill Gibbons from sending a letter on official stationery to Aliyev, offering a hardy "congratulations on your re-election!"

"That was a fake election, that wasn't real election," said Armenian activist Barry Barsoumian.

Barsoumian noted that a cursory search of the Internet would have revealed news reports about how Aliyev was suppressing his opposition.

And last year watchdog groups called Aliyev the corruption "person of the year."

"That should be a shame that a high official in Tennessee with that kind of position he cannot find out on Internet how brutal he is, how many people they've got in jail. That is unbelievable," Barsoumian added.

Asked if he had any regrets about writing the letter, Commissioner Gibbons said: "No, no regrets."

The commissioner explained that he wrote the letter of congratulations at the request of a Memphis city official who's interested in a role for Azerbaijan at the annual Memphis in May festival, which honors a different country each year.

"I did it as a result of that request," he said.

"Did you consider that a real election?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Oh, I can't really comment on the politics of Azerbaijan," he replied.

But Gibbons and an assistant commissioner had joined a group of lawmakers last year in accepting a junket to Turkey and Azerbaijan, claiming they needed to learn more about the two countries to do their jobs.

That trip was financed by groups with ties to the moderate Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen.

"Just from a strategic and national security standpoint, it's an important country to us," Gibbons said.

"Did you learn that elections are really not free there?" we followed.

"You know, I can't really comment on the elections in Azerbaijan," the commissioner continued.

In fact, the U.S. State Department criticized Azerbaijan for an election that "fell short of international standards." It pointed to evidence of ballot box stuffing and serious problems with vote counting. It noted that "authorities interfered with the media," "violently interrupted peaceful rallies" and "jailed a number of opposition and youth activists."

Aliyev responded on his official website by posting several letters of congratulations for his "confident victory," including the one from Gibbons.

Still, the commissioner doesn't see a problem.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So you would write the letter tomorrow if asked to do that?"

"Sure," he answered. "If Memphis in May wanted me to write a letter to honor any number of countries that may not have perfect democracies, I would do that."

Barsoumian asked, "Next, if al Qaeda come up here and take them on trip, are they going to do same thing?"

He added that the commissioner's trip and his letter of congratulations is more proof about how foreign interests are trying to buy respectability from Tennessee officials.

"They're trying to buy respect with money and hide their uncivilized way of government," he concluded.