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U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard says she will “personally reimburse” all the costs of her recent week-long trip to Syria.
What those costs amount to is not being disclosed, either by Gabbard or the pro-Syrian activist, Bassam Khawam, who now says he is the one who helped pay for the visit.
The Hawaii Democrat has come under blistering attack for the trip which included a meeting with President Bashar Assad in Damascus, an action that has been highly criticized by many as ill-advised and political grandstanding.
The Obama administration had wanted the Syrian leader removed from power because of his role fueling his country’s lengthy civil war, which has led to hundreds of thousands of casualties and a massive refugee crisis.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, Gabbard’s office said the congresswoman has decided to reimburse AACCESS-Ohio — the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services based in Cleveland — “as it has become a distraction from the important issue at hand.”
“Contrary to baseless claims in the media, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is beholden to no one in the region, her views on the situation are her own, and her determination to seek peace is beyond question,” the statement said.
Khawam told Civil Beat Tuesday that AACCESS-OH paid for the trip and that he and his brother, Elie, contributed to AACCESS-OH “to make up the difference, which was cleared by and approved by House Ethics.”
He said he is a board member and former executive director of AACCESS-Ohio.
Khawam said paperwork giving more details of the transaction is expected to be filed with the House Ethics Committee on Wednesday.
Who paid for the trip and what that donor hoped to accomplish has been the subject of much debate and press coverage since Gabbard revealed on Jan. 18 that she quietly flew off to Syria while most in Congress were attending the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Gabbard initially said the trip was funded by AACCESS-Ohio but declined to reveal any more information about the organization.
Civil Beat asked Gabbard specifically whether she had researched AACCESS before agreeing to go along on the trip with former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and others, including Khawam.
But she has refused to answer that question and instead referred all inquiries about the group to Kucinich.
“The trip was approved by the House Ethics Committee prior to her going on the trip,” a statement issued by her spokeswoman to Civil Beat on Monday said. “She had no prior knowledge or relationship with Elie and Bassam Khawam. … Your questions regarding AACCESS-Ohio or its membership should be directed to the organization or its leadership, or former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich who has known Elie and Bassam Khawam for over 20 years and has been on several AACCESS-Ohio trips to the region.”
But records for the nonprofit organization show the group has had no revenue or assets since 2006.
A website link for AACCESS is broken, but a person who answered the phone at AACCESS Tuesday confirmed that it is the organization that paid for Gabbard’s trip. But he said further inquiries would have to be answered by a “Mr. Al,” and that he would call back. As of Tuesday evening, that had not happened.
The shadowy status of AACCESS-Ohio was reported last week by The Guardian and expanded on Sunday in a piece by Washington Post columnist and political analyst Josh Rogin. Since then other major media outlets have been questioning the group’s background and Gabbard’s involvement with AACCESS-Ohio and the Khawam brothers.
Rogin wrote that Gabbard is spreading Assad’s “propaganda.” He contends the Khawams have direct ties to Assad.
“If Gabbard really didn’t know the men who sponsored her ‘fact-finding mission’ to Syria, she should have,” Rogin wrote. “To many, the entire affair proves that Assad’s Washington influence campaign is alive and well and now has a sitting congresswoman for a mouthpiece, whether she realizes it or not.”
The Guardian, meanwhile, identified Khawam as “the executive director” of AACCESS who “reportedly belongs to a pro-Assad Lebanese political party, the Syrian Social Nationalist party (SSNP). The party has dispatched its members to fight on behalf of the Assad regime during the nearly six-year war.”
On Tuesday, The Atlantic published an interview with Khawam, who “denied he had links to Assad or a controversial Syrian political party, and rejected news reports that said his group was anti-Semitic.”
The Atlantic also reported that, while the trip was sponsored by AACCESS, “Khawam said it was he and his brother, Elie Khawam, who funded the trip as a non-grant-making donation.”
Gabbard has repeatedly pointed out that the seven-day trip, which also included stops in Aleppo and Beirut, was approved by the House Ethics Committee, “as required by House rules, and was not taxpayer funded.”
In an emailed statement late Monday, the congresswoman continued to emphasize that her interest in the Syrian civil war is that she believes taxpayer dollars are wrongly being used “in support of militant groups working hand-in-hand with al-Qaeda and ISIS in the effort to overthrow the Syrian government.”
Kucinich and his wife accompanied Gabbard on the trip, and Kucinich — a fellow Democrat and former presidential candidate — said he has known “Sam” Khawam and his brother Elie for decades.
In an email to Civil Beat, Kucinich said that the Khawam brothers “have worked tirelessly for peace and understanding among the nations of the Middle East. Each of these brothers is well respected in their communities, and in the many conversations I’ve had with them, they have never expressed any sentiments of prejudice towards any group.”
He described AACCESS as in “active and good standing” with the IRS and as “a culturally sensitive community-based organization dedicated to empowering underserved populations, with a focus on Arab American communities.”
Gabbard’s husband, Abraham Williams, also accompanied the congresswoman on the trip. It’s unclear whether Gabbard will reimburse AACCESS for Williams’ expenses.
Gabbard’s office said “it is common practice for nonprofit organizations who invite Members of Congress on fact-finding trips to also invite their spouse on the trip. Abraham’s travel was also approved by the House Ethics Committee, as required.”
In a press release last week, Gabbard said, “Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it. I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there’s a chance it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering.”
Gabbard has been called both “courageous” and a “stooge” for her Syria trip.