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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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May 31st, 2013
07:02 PM ET

Former Obama advisers cashing in on White House résumés

By Jake Tapper, CNN Chief Washington Correspondent

President Barack Obama banned former aides from directly lobbying the government for two years after they leave the White House, but there are other ways to influence beyond direct lobbying.

The vague "consulting" loophole, for instance.

Even less publicized are junkets to foreign lands, often ones with abysmal records when it comes to human rights and democracy.

There was a conference in Azerbaijan this past Tuesday and Wednesday, an event attended by former top Obama aides, all of whom were well-compensated for their time and travel, as first reported by The Washington Post.

The country is regarded by human rights activists as repressive and backward.

"Azerbaijan is a highly authoritarian government," said Rachel Denber, of Human Rights Watch. "It's a government that doesn't look very kindly upon dissent. In the recent crackdown there has been dozens of protesters, political activists, dissidents, bloggers, arrested mostly on bogus charges and thrown in jail."

The country exercises excessive restrictions on freedom of expression and religion, they say.

Yet this week, former government officials were treated to luxury travel and accommodations in a city where the Azerbaijani government's "beautification" campaign has meant the forcible eviction of thousands of families and illegal demolition of their homes, according to Human Rights Watch.

A spokesman from the Azerbaijan embassy in D.C. said the country has taken steps to improve human rights, including signing the European Convention on Human Rights treaty, and a government sanctioned program to improve the protection of human rights.

Former top Obama White House advisers David Plouffe, Jim Messina, and Robert Gibbs spoke at the conference.

When such high-profile former government officials speak, they are handsomely compensated, usually tens of thousands of dollars.

Others in attendance, according to the program online, included former top officials such Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense under former President George W. Bush, and former Republican Sen. Dick Lugar.

"It raises questions about whether the public interest is always the Number One interest when these folks are going abroad and collecting five figure checks," said Stephen Spaulding of Common Cause.

Current members of Congress were also listed as attending, though they would not have been paid.

Azerbaijan produces 1 million barrels of oil through a relatively new pipeline from its oil field under the Caspian Sea every day. This week's conference was sponsored by a coterie of oil and gas companies, including BP, Conoco Phillips, Chevron, and the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic.

"Former high level officials convening for an event that brings the country prestige shows how important the country is," said Denber.

In addition to prestige, advice, and help becoming an energy giant, the government of Azerbaijan also wants the administration to support its efforts to reclaim a breakaway republic from Armenian and separatist control.

In an e-mail, a former government official who attended, but asked not to be named, tells CNN that there is another angle here.

"One thing all these stories fail to mention is the alliance we have with Azerbaijan on energy, counterterrorism, and most importantly Afghanistan. Without their logistical and supply routes we couldn't do what we do. Especially when we've had Pakistan shut things down," wrote the official.

"This can encourage dialogue. This could encourage progress," said Spaulding. "We would expect our highest public servants to be good ambassadors abroad, but at the same time we don't want at all the appearance of selling access."

The former government official also told CNN that for context, it is not uncommon for "people like us, in fact former presidents speak in Russia, China, and many other countries with democracy and human rights progress to make, and far less cooperation in other areas than Azerbaijan."

Plouffe, Messina, and Gibbs declined to speak on the record, but they told CNN that former White House counsel Bob Bauer checked out the invitation and payment and said there was nothing inappropriate about the trip.

They also say they brought up Azerbaijan's human rights record in their speeches.

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