Tuesday, March 20, 2012

TOP STORY >> Williams paid his way

Leader staff writer

Sen. Eddie Joe (R-Cabot) came under fire recently for not reporting a cultural exchange trip arranged by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians in Little Rock that he took to Turkey last summer with four other state lawmakers.

But Williams says he and the others paid for the trip themselves. And he reported it only as a precaution not because he thought the law required it.

In the past, the trip was funded by the Turkish TCAE, but not last year. Williams said he paid more than $3,300 for airfare for himself and his wife. During the 10-day trip, they stayed with local residents, who prepared most of their meals. When he was out, he bought food for himself and his wife most of the time, he said.

The TCAE website says its mission is to “promote the cultural, educational, academic, business, social and arts relations and to organize events and activities to bring together the American and Turkish, Turkic and Eurasian communities within the U.S.”

Williams said he is required to report expenditures by others on his behalf on his statement of financial interest when those expenditures exceed $150. But he had many hosts during his visit, and he thinks it unlikely that any of them spent more than $150.

Rice is a significant part of the Turkish diet and the main reason he made the trip, Williams said.

Turkey was the third largest importer of American rice in 2010, according to Chuck Wilson, director of Arkansas field services for the USA Rice Federation in Stuttgart.

Arkansas produces 60 percent of the rice grown in the United States and much of it is grown in the district to which the senator was elected in 2010.

“There are more than 1 million acres of rice in Arkansas,” Williams said. “And last year half a billion dollars worth of rice was exported to Turkey.”

Turkey is so important to Arkansas that growers are now trying to accommodate Turkish tastes with medium-grain rice that they prefer for soups.

Arkansas farms typically grow long-grain rice because that type is better suited to the conditions in Arkansas. California grows a variety of medium-grain rice called Calrose that suited Turkish tastes but lost part of that market because of high prices, Wilson said.

Now Arkansas farmers are growing Jupiter, a medium-grain rice developed about five years ago in Louisiana that is doing very well in Turkey. Medium-grain rice contains more gluten which makes it stickier.

Wilson said rice growers want legislators to visit their export countries to help promote their products. Those visits create goodwill and also give the legislators a better understanding of their needs.

Although Turkey consumes a lot of rice, it’s not grown there because of the lack of water, the senator said. Turkey also lacks trees and the market for trees here is so bad that it’s not worthwhile to sell them, he said.

“We’re actively exploring the export of lumber to Turkey,” he said.

But economics aside, the senator said he and his wife enjoyed the trip a great deal. He met the Turkish equivalent to the secretary of state, toured the legislature and the capital’s “Rose Garden.”

He toured schools and met friends of his hosts.

He hadn’t expected the Muslim country to be so westernized and so diverse at the same time, he said. Most of the people he met, including women, were barely distinguishable in dress and attitude from Americans. But he met some women who wore traditional Muslim garb and wouldn’t look him in the eye much less talk to him.

Turkey is an important NATO ally and the United States has an air base there, Williams said. Turkey has a growing economy and it needs products that Arkansas produces.

The trip that he mostly paid for was about building relationships to improve the Arkansas economy, the senator said.

“It starts with the relationship,” he said.