How the U.S. Paid for Foreign Dictator to Court GOP Governor

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters

A secret agent working for an authoritarian ex-Soviet republic who allegedly bribed Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) also pursued ties with Oklahoma and its Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt—with U.S. federal funds helping to underwrite his efforts, The Daily Beast has found.

The Daily Beast previously reported that the unnamed operative, who allegedly arranged corrupt contracts between the government of Azerbaijan and the Cuellar family, is Elshan Baloghlanov, a former official at the country’s Los Angeles consulate and the owner of the D.C.-area firm WCC International. The Daily Beast further revealed that WCC International not only matches the description of the company that allegedly supplied some of the illicit cash to the Democrat’s immediate relatives, but also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in American foreign aid money as a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Now, The Daily Beast can reveal that at least some of that USAID money paid for Baloghlanov and WCC International to conduct outreach efforts in Oklahoma that led directly to Stitt visiting Azerbaijan in 2021, and even meeting with its dictatorial President Ilham Aliyev.

Cuellar has denied wrongdoing. USAID, Baloghlanov, and WCC did not respond to repeated queries from The Daily Beast. A spokesperson for Stitt, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, maintained any contact between his administration and Baloghlanov and his company was purely “incidental.”

Oklahoma is particularly important to Azerbaijan because the country’s military receives technical support from the state’s National Guard under a U.S. Defense Department program. Azerbaijan and Oklahoma also share a heavy economic dependence on fossil fuel extraction, and authorities in the capital of Baku have increasingly looked to the Sooner State as they seek to develop the Central Asian nation’s farm sector.

It was ostensibly for this last purpose that the nonprofit Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA), which contracts with USAID, hired WCC International to help “organize the First Oklahoma-Azerbaijan Agricultural Forum” in Nov. 2019, according to a report the group filed with the federal agency that year. This report, along with all others CNFA filed referring to its work with WCC International, disappeared from the USAID website following The Daily Beast’s original story. However, several documents remain visible in web caches and archives.

The Oklahoma-Azerbaijan Agricultural Forum occurred only 10 months after the Department of Justice alleges WCC International paid a $30,000 bribe to Rep. Cuellar’s wife, Imelda Cuellar, the last in a series of disbursements totaling nearly $250,000 that the federal indictment says Baloghlanov arranged on behalf of the Azerbaijani government.

Stitt—then in the first year of his first term—not only served as a keynote speaker at the forum, but took the occasion to declare Nov. 9 “Azerbaijan Day,” CNFA noted in its writeup. The event also featured the signing of a memorandum of understanding for cooperation between Oklahoma State University and a government-run agricultural school in Azerbaijan.

For its part, Baloghlanov’s company promoted the event and the attendance of Azerbaijani and USAID officials on its Facebook page.

But despite the forum’s pastoral theme, photos and a video the Oklahoma National Guard posted online show top officials from the state military force flanked Stitt during a sit-down with the Azerbaijani government officials, and posed and powwowed with members of the foreign delegation in ballrooms and hallways.

One photo even shows then-Adjutant General Michael Thompson, the state’s highest-ranked military and law enforcement officer and a member of Stitt’s cabinet, chatting with a grinning Baloghlanov—now alleged to be a secret agent and foreign bribe-master—and the rector of the Azerbaijani state agricultural school who signed the memorandum of understanding with OSU the day before.


Then-Oklahoma National Guard Adjutant General Michael C. Thompson, right, speaks with alleged Azerbaijani bag man Elshan Baloghlanov, center, and State Agrarian University of Azerbaijan rector Ibrahim Jafarov, left.

Leanna Maschino

Shown the photo over text message and informed of Baloghlanov’s activities, the since-retired Thompson said he had no recollection of the discussion or knowledge of the Azerbaijani agent’s identity or agenda.

“I have no idea who the man in the red tie is, nor do I know what the random conversation was about at this event I attended five years ago,” he wrote to The Daily Beast, adding that he had no contact with federal authorities during the Cuellar investigation. “Obviously I don’t know what he did before or after this agriculture event.”

In its annual report to the governor, the Guard described the gathering as “a defining moment in our 17-year partnership” with Baku. CNFA was no less enthused, declaring it such a success that in a subsequent report it said it would deploy WCC to additional states for similar events.

It also argued Stitt’s presence, along with that of other elected officials, “helped lend visibility and credibility to the event.” Also exciting, the governor had vowed to have his Azerbaijani guests host him in the near future.

“At the Forum, Governor Kevin Stitt committed to leading a delegation to Azerbaijan in the spring of 2020,” the first report to USAID read.

When the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, CNFA pivoted to webinars, most posted on a Facebook page called “U.S.-Azerbaijan Trade Linkages” that the group controlled—and most hosted by Baloghlanov.

The most popular of these events that Baloghlanov led—with the USAID logo displayed above his shoulder—was a December 2020 e-forum with two wheat experts from Oklahoma State University. A little more than a month before, Azerbaijan concluded a brief but bloody war with its neighbor Armenia, and successfully captured the city of Shusha in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which had declared independence and aligned with Armenia in 1991.

The CNFA-run Facebook page, underwritten with American foreign aid dollars, celebrated this military triumph.

It followed up two days later with a post highlighting the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry’s partnership with the Oklahoma National Guard.

In July 2021, Stitt’s trip to Azerbaijan finally came off—which CNFA credited to the 2019 forum WCC helped run.

“Perhaps the most notable event of the year was the follow-on Oklahoma Trade Mission, which in summer 2021 brought a government delegation, headed by Governor Kevin Stitt, to Azerbaijan in follow up from the 2019 PSA-supported Oklahoma-Azerbaijan Agricultural Forum in Oklahoma,” the contractor’s report to USAID reads.

The USAID contractor was not alone in linking the trip to the WCC-supported 2019 summit. An update on the junket posted to Stitt’s government website stated that the Sooner-Azeri “relationship expanded in 2019 when a delegation from Azerbaijan visited Oklahoma for the Oklahoma-Azerbaijan Agricultural Forum.” Similarly, in highlighting Stitt’s visit, the American embassy in Baku asserted “Oklahoma’s friendship with Azerbaijan grew new roots in 2019” thanks to the event Baloghlanov and his company helped stage.

While in the Caucasus autocracy, Stitt—accompanied by his National Guard and state agricultural officers—dined on caviar and, beneath a banner bearing the USA logo, signed off on a deal for Oklahoma State University to offer a dual degree program with its Azerbaijani counterpart.

The governor and his National Guard brass also sat down with the country’s defense minister to vouch continued support for the “strategic partnership” with the country’s military.

And Stitt and Adjutant General Thompson even met with, and bestowed a custom-made cowboy hat upon, Azerbaijani President Aliyev. Aliyev has ruled Azerbaijan since the death of his father, the previous president, in 2003, and his regime is known for fraudulent elections, the stifling of the press and political dissent, and the imprisonment and torture of regime opponents.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has also uncovered a vast overseas web of companies and properties where the Aliyev family has stashed its colossal private fortune, much of the portfolio in the hands of a former government official named Gafar Gurbanov

As it happens, The Daily Beast revealed last month that Gurbanov was listed as a director of the predecessor entity to WCC International, which Baloghlanov formed in California during his term as vice consul in L.A.

The CNFA report to USAID asserted that its Azerbaijan project, of which WCC has been a part, coordinated with the U.S. Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce (which has frequently partnered with Baloghlanov) and “other stakeholders to help host the visitors in Azerbaijan and arrange an array of government-to-government, government-to-business, and business-to-business meetings for trade mission delegates.”

However, CNFA and Stitt’s office both denied this when approached by The Daily Beast.

“The 2021 Oklahoma Trade mission was managed directly by U.S. and Azerbaijan government relationships. CNFA did not facilitate this event,” CNFA spokeswoman Darshana Patel told The Daily Beast.

Patel refused to provide a comprehensive breakdown of WCC’s activities and invoices for CNFA in Oklahoma, insisting her organization lacked the “bandwidth” to do so. She would provide only a total dollar figure that Baloghlanov’s company received for all its subcontracted tasks under USAID-sponsored programs: $399,576. She previously told The Daily Beast that CNFA selected WCC as a vendor through a competitive bidding process.

Rep. Cuellar Staring Down Decades Behind Bars as DOJ Indictment Arrives

Similarly, Stitt’s office did not respond to repeated questions about contact with Baloghlanov or WCC regarding the 2019 forum, but maintained the alleged Azerbaijani operative and his firm were not involved with the international excursion in 2021.

“The trip you referenced was organized by the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani government and USAID as an economic development and agriculture trip. Any connection with the company mentioned was incidental. I don’t believe any further meetings or contact occurred and there is no recollection from those on the trip of the individual or company referenced.”

Less than two months after the governor’s return, his administration announced that Trece, an Oklahoma-based insect-control company, would begin doing business in Azerbaijan. The official release credited the international expansion to the 2019 forum and the 2021 trip. The Daily Beast further found that Trece and its owner Bill Lingren, a donor to Stitt’s allies in the Oklahoma legislature, also participated in a USAID-sponsored event in Azerbaijan alongside WCC International in 2019.

In December 2022, Stitt hosted the chief of the general staff of the Azerbaijani in Oklahoma to celebrate the anniversary of their military partnership. A week-and-a-half afterward, Baku blockaded the main supply corridor to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the first step toward another clash over the province that ultimately led to the mass exodus of its ancient ethnic Armenian population.

The close proximity of the two events prompted criticism of Stitt and the Oklahoma-Azerbaijani partnership from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

The Daily Beast found that Baloghlanov has personally facilitated at least one other Oklahoma company’s entry into Azerbaijan, while WCC has since worked with firms in at least half a dozen other states under the auspices of CNFA. However, none—as yet—has sent their governor to Baku.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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