The nation of Qatar has been aggressively trying to increase its influence in American public affairs over the last several years. According to the Dept of Justice, that effort has included alleged bribes paid to Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), whose lengthy list of charges was amended this week to include allegations that he was given luxury watches and other goods “in exchange to use his influence and power to breach his official duty to assist Daibes, who was seeking millions of dollars in investment from a fund with ties to the Government of Qatar, by performing acts to benefit the Government of Qatar.”
The Arizona Globe has learned that the list of politicians who have benefited from the free-spending ways of the oil-rich Gulf nation include Arizona House speaker Ben Toma. In 2019, Toma accepted a trip worth as much as $25,000 from the nation of Qatar.
According to Toma’s 2019 financial disclosure form, he accepted a trip to Qatar as part of the Qatar-America leadership Exchange (QALE) delegation led by the Qatar-America Institute (QAI) in Washington, D.C. According to the Post-Delegation Report published by the QALE, the Toma group, which also included state legislators from Nebraska and Oklahoma, met with U.S. officials at Al-Udeid Air Base and U.S. Embassy, talked about the 2022 World Cup, visited the National Museum and toured the Ministry of Finance and other delegation activities.
Why an elected official from a desert in the American West needs to visit a desert in the Middle East is unclear. But now that Toma is running for federal office – he is seeking the seat in congressional district 8 that became open after the surprise announcement by Debbie Lesko she would not be running for reelection – that trip merits closer scrutiny. Especially with Republican primary voters intensely focused on allegations that the Biden family enriched itself via foreign powers looking to gain influence in American public affairs. Lesko has endorsed Toma’s bid to replace her.
While much Republican attention has focused on Ukraine and China, both of which are alleged to have provided Hunter Biden with funds for questionable work other than influencing his famous father, a trip to Qatar raises different concerns, particularly in the wake of fresh hostilities in the Middle East.
Qatar is home to Al Jazeera television, widely seen by Republican primary voters as a propaganda operation favoring a narrative extremely antagonistic to both Israel and United States. Even Joe Biden’s White House is reported to have “asked Qatar to ‘tone down’ Al Jazeera’s Gaza war coverage.” Toma is said to have visited the headquarters of Al Jazeera during his visit to Doha.
More troublingly, Qatar is also home to several top officials in Hamas, who have been granted safe refuge there, and have been accused by some find a link of growing personally wealthy there, amid suffering of ordinary Palestinians in the Gaza strip.
‘I had never been to that part of the world’
The Arizona Globe asked Speaker Toma to comment on what he’d learned as part of the delegation.
“I can’t say that I found it terribly influential outside of the fact that once you actually see something, once you’re there you know you have a different perspective. That’s not necessarily good or bad,” Speaker Toma told the Globe in a phone interview on Friday. “It’s just I think there’s a difference between having experienced something versus having like a theoretical knowledge of something. You know it’s like the age-old ‘map is not the territory’ sort of thing. So yeah, you think you know how things are, but once you actually go and see it in person you can now develop a more accurate impression of what things are like. That trip was interesting to me in a lot of ways.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong or suspicious with elected officials taking these sponsored junkets. If Americans want their leaders to understand the world and experience it broadly, joining delegations is one way to accomplish it, especially if we wish to elect those who cannot afford to be jet-setting in a personal capacity. But a trip like the one provided by the Qatar-America leadership Exchange, in which Toma and his fellow state legislators were flown business class to Doha, naturally gives rise to questions about resisting undue foreign influence.
Toma told the Globe, “I think it goes down to how do you find people who are ethical in general, and it’s not about just a trip. I mean I can tell you that as a general rule I say no to most trips. That one was interesting because I had never been to that part of the world and it was fairly early on even my tenure as a member of the legislature, and so they sort of got me early if you will from that perspective. But I mostly say no now to trips, and it’s just because it’s a matter of time and for me, family is more important and I’ve got plenty of responsibilities as it is, so I can only speak for myself. In terms of how to avoid the influence of foreign governments, I mean the truth of the matter is any human being, whether it’s a foreign government or, represented by foreign governments that is, or just some interest group here in the United States. They’re all going to try to influence you one way or another, right, to see things their way and that’s just human nature.”
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