A fringe think tank that vilifies Muslims bankrolled Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar's trip to the U.K. last month to attend a rally for a jailed far-right activist.
During a July 14 speech in London, Gosar smeared "disgusting and depraved" Muslim immigrants and defended Tommy Robinson, a rabble-rouser who previously led the extremist English Defence League.
Money-in-politics news site Sludge published travel disclosure forms on Thursday revealing what the Prescott Republican filed to the House Committee on Ethics.
The Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based group maligned for its views on Islam, shelled out $9,517.73 on Gosar's behalf, according to the financial disclosures. One document, filed by Gosar and signed by the director of the MEF, lists $8,612 in travel expenses – Gosar flew business class – $762 for lodging, and $142 for food.
The MEF's director Gregg Roman said in an interview that his organization supported the July 14 Robinson rally as a financial underwriter but didn't organize the speakers.
"We don't agree with all of Robinson's views, but we do agree with his right to participate in the debate about the larger subject, which is Islamism," Roman told Phoenix New Times.
Robinson was imprisoned in May for violating a legal restriction that prohibits publicizing a trial and recently was released.
The MEF approached members of Congress encouraging them to attend the U.K. trip, Roman said. Although four or five people expressed interest, he said, only Gosar agreed to fly to Europe on the think tank's dime.
"We had hoped that the Congressional delegation would've been larger, but in the end Congressman Gosar was the only one whose schedule permitted him to go," Roman said.
Roman declined to name the other members of Congress who expressed interest.
Critics say that the MEF, like other influential right-wing groups, disguises Islamophobic ideas with the gloss of academic language and an uncontroversial think-tank name.
Right-wing commentator Daniel Pipes founded the group in 1990. The Harvard-educated writer is known for his inflammatory pronouncements on Muslims, including an obsessive focus on the threat that Islamists pose to the U.S. His center is dedicated to exposing the alleged creep of Islamist politics and Sharia in society.
The MEF's Islamist Watch project "unveils and combats internal Islamist forces that exploit the freedoms of Western democracy to undermine from within," according to the group's website. The project seeks to "make Islamists in suits and ties no more acceptable than ones wearing suicide vests."
Roman, however, disputed the notion that the MEF is "an anti-Muslim organization."
"It is an anti-Islamist organization – big difference there," Roman said.
House members have to disclose to the Ethics Committee private sponsors of trips connected to the member's official duties.
Gosar's rationale for the trip, as laid out in his travel request to the Ethics Committee, was to discuss freedom of speech, yet he didn't mention Robinson by name in his disclosures to the committee.
35-year-old Robinson (real name: Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) has become a martyr in the eyes of the European anti-immigrant far-right.
Far-right activists argue that Robinson's rights were violated after he was arrested and jailed for filming outside of a courthouse, where Robinson claimed in a video that Muslim defendants inside were on trial for child sexual abuse. Robinson was released on August 1, but faces a new hearing over his contempt of court charge.
Gosar's travel itinerary allowed the MEF to fly him to London during the weekend of the Robinson rally, while not sponsoring his appearance at the far-right rally to free Robinson.
When disclosing his reason for flying to the U.K., Gosar wrote on the travel form, "As a member of Congress it is important for me to attend this trip to meet with outside groups to discuss the importance of respecting free speech."
But the congressman designated July 14, the day of the "Free Tommy Robinson" rally, as a day of travel at Gosar's own personal expense, though Gosar's schedule and travel itinerary did not mention the rally.
The Ethics Committee noted the timing of the Robinson rally in their approval of his official travel request, informing him that "this rally is not within the scope of the officially-connected travel that is the basis of this trip and that participation in rallies or related activities are not officially-connected activities."
The committee also warned that the London Metropolitan Police had issued a travel warning and security restrictions for the Robinson rally, and noted that the rally was organized by Gosar's travel sponsor.
Overall, the optics are weird: Gosar went to London on an officially-sanctioned, MEF-funded flight, then on his "personal time," he appeared at a rally sponsored by the same organization.
Nevertheless, the MEF doesn't see any awkwardness in Gosar's travel schedule. The organization didn't pay for his security or travel on the day of the rally, Roman said, arguing that Gosar followed the letter and spirit of the law.
"If he goes to London to advocate for Tommy Robinson – which is the purpose of the trip – if he participates in an event that we're holding there, that's his decision and prerogative to do that," Roman said.
Gosar was late to submit his travel request – members of Congress must have travel requests approved 30 days in advance – but the House committee approved Gosar's request anyway.
The documents obtained by Sludge also reveal that on July 15, Gosar met with bomb-throwing former Trump advisor Steve Bannon; former London Breitbart editor and MEF fellow Raheem Kassam; and the British politician Nigel Farage, a champion of Brexit.
Roman said that the MEF organized Gosar's meeting with Farage and several other individuals, but claimed that the meeting with Bannon was not on the organization's itinerary.
A representative for Gosar did not respond to a request for comment.
The executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Imraan Siddiqi, wrote in an email that Robinson's EDL has been linked to violent attacks.
It was already "horrifying" to watch Gosar speak at the Robinson rally, Siddiqi said, and added that because Gosar's trip was organized and funded by the MEF, Gosar "had full knowledge of what he was getting into."
Gosar taking nearly $10,000 from the MEF "should be troubling for any people of conscience," Siddiqi said.