The overseas trip for five Virginia officials started in Istanbul, where they planned to take four flights over a week to tour Turkey, one of the United States’ strongest allies in the region.
For most, it would be the trip of a lifetime — the kind of official tours taken by members of Congress. The trip, from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3, included stops at tourist sites, dinners, meetings with Turkish politicians, a school tour, a visit to a Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border and a day for shopping before returning home, according to an itinerary.
Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R) helped plan the trip, according to e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. York was joined by Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton, Prince William County Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles), Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) and Purcellville Mayor Robert W. Lazaro Jr.
Except for the airfare, the trip was courtesy of the American Turkish Friendship Association, a Fairfax-based nonprofit group that seeks to strengthen ties between the two countries.
Although similar trips have been taken many times in the past by officials in Northern Virginia, there has been a buzz in Prince William and Loudoun over the officials selected for this one. Political bloggers and at least one public official have questioned its validity and motivation.
The five officials are mostly known for their role in setting transportation policy and are involved in the most controversial efforts in the region. Three — York, Nohe and Euille — serve on the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which plays a key role in prioritizing and funding transportation projects.
Connaughton oversees transportation matters in the region and statewide. (York, Nohe and Connaughton are also notable supporters of the Bi-County Parkway, a controversial proposal that would link Loudoun and Prince William counties.)
York said in an e-mail that he invited participants based on their involvement with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, another body made up of elected officials that works on a host of issues, transportation among them.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), a frequent critic of Connaughton’s and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, said he was suspicious of the trip and could not be assured that business was not conducted abroad. Virginia law requires officials to disclose when two or more members of a body meet, Marshall said.
“They’re really telling fairy tales if they expect people to believe that the secretary of transportation and three members of the [transportation authority] are not talking” about transportation matters, Marshall said.
Nohe, the authority’s chairman, said no official business was discussed. He said he disclosed the trip during a Board of County Supervisors meeting. Although notice of the trip was not posted online, he did put up an announcement on a bulletin board where the authority meets, per the advice of attorneys.
“I’m not going to travel 9,000 miles to talk about the stuff I talk about all the time,” Nohe said.
Connaughton did not respond to a request for comment.
Marshall accused the authority of “skirting the spirit” of the meeting disclosure statute by posting notice of the trip on a bulletin board outsiders would not be likely to see. “That is the height of arrogance and hypocrisy,” he said.
Nohe said he would encourage the General Assembly to take up the issue.
Lazaro said that the trip to Turkey was transformational and that the number of transportation-involved officials was coincidental. Bloggers with “conspiracy theories” should look for other fodder, he said. “They need a life, frankly,” he said.
“No one puts a refugee camp on a junket,” he said of the group’s visit to the border and a refugee camp there. “That’s the most transformational thing I’ve done in my lifetime. You just can’t describe it.”
Lazaro has established a blanket drive for the camps — a vital need, he said.
Officials said they did not how much the trip cost, and American Turkish Friendship Association leaders could not immediately be reached for comment.
York paid for the $4,565 airfare for the participants through a fund established at the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, according to York and e-mails.
Mark Gibb, the commission’s executive director, said the money is raised through corporate or charitable donations and doesn’t involve taxpayer funds. The fund has also been used to pay for trips to Germany and Korea, among others, he said. Officials have studied traffic circles, helped encourage economic development in the region and have been prompted to spur humanitarian efforts.
“It’s not some sort of academic exercise,” Gibb said of the trips. The officials come back and apply lessons learned to make the lives of Northern Virginia residents better, he said.
Nohe said such trips are necessary. He has taken similar trips to Germany and Taiwan, and Prince William, along with other jurisdictions, often hosts foreign delegations, he said.
“It’s the most educational thing I do in this job,” he said. “I believe I’m a better supervisor because of the lessons I learn by talking to other elected officials.”
Euille agreed with his colleagues on the disclosure rules and said no transportation authority business was discussed. He responded by e-mail because he’s on another trip: in Caen, France. The Alexandria sister city is paying for the trip, but Euille paid for his airfare, he said.
Caitlin Gibson and Gaye Gunes contributed to this report.