Illinois congressman Danny Davis and an aide took a trip to Sri Lanka last year that was paid for by the Tamil Tigers, a group that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization for its use of suicide bombers and child soldiers, law enforcement sources said.
Davis' seven-day trip came under new scrutiny this week following the arrests of 11 supporters of the organization on charges of participating in a broad conspiracy to support the terrorist group through money laundering, arms procurement and bribery of U.S. officials.
The five-term Democratic congressman said he was unaware that the Tigers paid for the trip and on his required congressional disclosure form he reported that the trip was paid for by a Hickory Hills, Ill.-based Tamil cultural organization, the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America.
During the visit, Davis spent most of his time in a region controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the group is formally known, and visited the organization's political headquarters. He also met with a police chief for the region appointed by the Tigers.
The Tamil Tigers is a separatist group that has been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for 3.2 million ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka, a tear-shaped island nation of 20 million off the southern tip of India. In addition to conventional guerrilla tactics, the group has used terrorist methods, including 200 suicide bombings, in a bloody conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives. Though the violence between the government and the separatist group abated during the past several years, it recently surged again, threatening a renewed civil war.
Davis said he believed that the trip, from March 30 to April 5, 2005, was paid for by the Tamil federation, which in accordance with congressional ethics rules sent him a written statement of the travel expenses, more than $7,000 each for Davis and his aide, Daniel Cantrell. Davis said he knew that the group was "associated" with the Tamil Tigers but did not realize that the trip's costs were covered with funds controlled by the rebel group.
"I know who I got the trip from," Davis said. "I don't know if any clandestine group gave them money. All I know is what I saw and was told."
As recently as this past Saturday, Davis talked in Chicago with a supporter of the Tamil Tigers who was among 11 people arrested on charges of conspiring to aid the rebel group through money laundering, procurement of arms, including surface-to-air missiles, and bribery of public officials.
That Tamil Tiger supporter, Murugesu Vinayagamoorthy, was described in a federal criminal complaint as a high-level operative who served as an intermediary between the Tigers' leaders and foreign backers. The complaint charges that he offered a $1 million bribe to an undercover FBI agent posing as a State Department official in an attempt to remove the Tamil Tigers' designation as a terrorist organization.
Davis said he first met Vinayagamoorthy, a 57-year-old London physician, at a Tamil cultural event in the Chicago suburbs at which both of them gave speeches "a few years ago." Vinayagamoorthy also participated in several of the meetings that Davis held while visiting Sri Lanka, the congressman said.
The Tamil supporter contacted the congressman's office again last week seeking a chance to brief Davis on events in Sri Lanka, where violence between the government and Tamil Tigers has flared anew. Vinayagamoorthy arranged to do so while walking alongside Davis Saturday for 10 blocks during the congressman's annual "Back to School" Parade in Chicago, Davis said.
The criminal complaint against Vinayagamoorthy asserts that he had "direct and frequent contact" with leaders of the rebel group and was "often dispatched" to facilitate Tamil Tiger projects around the world.
Without mentioning Davis or his aide by name, the complaint describes a series of transactions in which Vinayagamoorthy and others charged in the case allegedly laundered $13,150 in Tamil Tiger funds at the direction of a top guerilla leader to pay for travel of "two individuals" to Tamil-controlled Sri Lanka. The two individuals were Davis and Cantrell, law enforcement officials said.
Another person arrested in the case, Nachimuthu Socrates, was listed as a director in 2004 of the Tamil cultural organization which Davis listed in public disclosure forms as the trip's sponsor, the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America. Representatives of the federation did not return phone messages on Wednesday.
Davis said he always assumed that the organization had a connection with the Tamil Tigers.
"I knew that they were associated with the Tamil Tigers, yes," he said.
Davis has been an outspoken supporter of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.
This month, he issued a statement condemning an Aug.14 Sri Lankan Air Force bombing in Tamil-controlled territory that reportedly killed dozens of girls.
Davis' statement said the facility was an orphanage he had visited during his 2005 trip to Sri Lanka. The government said the site was a former orphanage being used as an LTTE training camp for female recruits.
"We've been engaged," Davis said. "There hasn't been anything clandestine about our position."
Davis has been one of the most prolific travelers in Congress, accepting 47 trips paid for by private groups since 2000. That total ranks Davis 15th among the 535 members of Congress, according to Political Moneyline, a nonpartisan watchdog group that compiles data from congressional disclosure forms.
The Tamil Tigers were designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. As a result, federal law bars providing them funding, arms or other material support.