By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ever-expanding army of lobbyists have been working overtime to convince US authorities to go after former ally turned rival Fethullah Gulen.
Ankara accuses the US-based cleric of being behind last year’s foiled coup and is demanding that the Donald Trump administration extradite him. At the same time, Turkish lobbyists are going after a network of Gulen-linked charter schools to dry up alleged funding sources for his movement and raise alarms inside the United States.
Spearheading the effort is lawyer Robert Amsterdam, who was hired in October 2015. Turkey spent $550,000 on the Amsterdam & Partners law firm and a half-dozen subcontractors last year, lobbying records show, out of a total lobbying and public relations of just under $3 million.
“Gulen’s been brilliant,” Amsterdam told Al-Monitor in an August interview. “He’s injected himself into a system that prides itself, in a way, on its lack of accountability.”
Amsterdam recently released a book about a network he says encompasses some 170 taxpayer-supported charter schools serving 70,000 students in 29 states. He accuses Turkish teachers at the schools of committing visa fraud and turning over as much as 40% of their income to Gulen.
Much of Amsterdam’s attention has been focused on Ohio, where his firm has donated almost $50,000 to Progress Ohio Education, a liberal group critical of charter schools in the state. The FBI is investigating allegations that Turkish employees in the state skimmed more than $5 million from federal contracts and transferred the funds to a Gulen-linked bank in Turkey.
In addition to Amsterdam, Turkey signed a $1.7 million contract with longtime lobbyist Greenberg Traurig this May to take over main lobbying duties from the Gephardt Group of former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., whose contract was terminated in December. Greenberg Traurig in turn hired the Daschle Group of former US Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to lobby Congress and US agencies on behalf of Ankara.
Days before Erdogan’s first visit to the Trump White House in May, Turkey hired Ballard Partners, a firm favored by Trump to lobby for his business interests in Florida before becoming president. Lobbyists on the $125,000-per-month.account include Trump's former Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard and former Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla. That same month, Ankara signed a $1.1 million-a-year contract with public relations giant Burson Marsteller.
Pro-Gulen groups are pushing back.
The Washington Diplomacy Group (formerly Washington Strategy Group), a nonprofit advocacy group started by Suleyman Turhanogullari of the pro-Gulen Turkic American Alliance, spent $50,000 last year and $60,000 so far this year to lobby in favor of “Human rights violations and the protection of free expression in Turkey.” The firm this year hired the Estopinan Group of Art Estopinan, the former chief of staff to House Middle East Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., as well as Gotham Government Relations, the New York-based public relations firm that helped orchestrate Trump’s presidential campaign announcement.
In June, Washington Diplomacy Group hired Sextons Creek, a firm run by William Smith, who was Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff when he was a member of Congress. Public disclosures indicate that the firm has focused its lobbying efforts on the office of the vice president.
In turn, a half-dozen local Gulenist organizations from across the United States hired Washington Diplomacy Group in August and September to lobby on "Global human rights violations, freedom of expression, rule of law [and] recent refugee and immigration problems."
Yuksel Alp Aslandogan, the executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values, an umbrella organization of pro-Gulen groups that hired Washington Diplomacy Group on Aug. 1, expressed doubt that the FBI investigation would yield any results.
“What happens usually is an investigation of some sort makes the news,” Aslandogan told Al-Monitor in an August interview. “But when the investigation is concluded with no finding, that doesn’t.”
Ironically, Turkey's aggressive lobbying push created problems for one of Turkey's most powerful potential allies inside the Trump administration.
From August 2016 through Trump’s presidential transition, short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn was a paid lobbyist for Inovo BV, a Dutch company run by Turkish businessman Kamil Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin is the chairman of the Turkey-US Business Council, an arm of the Turkish government's Foreign Economic Relations Board.
Flynn's consulting firm received $530,000 from Inovo BV but failed to register as a foreign agent until after he was ousted from the White House over his Russian contacts. The Flynn Intel Group was specifically tasked with producing a short film about the dangers Gulen purportedly poses to democracy. Flynn also published an anti-Gulen op-ed in The Hill newspaper on election day arguing that Gulen was a “radical Islamist” and that the United States “should not provide him safe haven.” Flynn's off-the-books lobbying for Turkish interests got him entagled into the probe of Russian interference into the 2016 election, and he pleaded guilty on Dec. 1 of lying about his links to Turkey when he registed as a foreign agent in March.
Shady Turkish dealings have also been on full display with the trial in New York of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who has implicated Erdogan in a scheme to help Iran evade US sanctions. One of the defendants in the case is Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the former deputy chief executive officer for Halkbank, the country's largest listed lender. Halkbank hired Ballard Partners' Ballard and Wexler for $125,000 a month in August for help with "advising, counseling and assisting the foreign principal in communications with US government officials."
The Turkish public relations firm Arsay Media, meanwhile, paid Florida-based Prime Strategies $20,000 in February to identify US journalists for meetings with officials in Turkey. The move backfired after the reporters were treated to an interview with conspiracy-mongering Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek instead of a promised sit-down with Erdogan himself.
Trump initially took a largely favorable position toward Erdogan, and was the first Western leader to call him after his victory in an April referendum on presidential powers that many critics denounced as a power grab. The Turkish leader’s visit to Washington a month later, however, was marred by images of Erdogan’s bodyguards punching and kicking unarmed protesters, leading the House to vote unanimously in favor of prosecuting any Turkish officials involved in the violence.
Turkey. a NATO ally, has also had a rough time convincing Washington to stop arming the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be a terrorist group. Turkey has said that Trump promised to stop arming the YPG in a call with Erdogan late last month, but the Pentagon will only commit to considering "adjustments" to its support.
"It is absolutely unacceptable to take the [YPG] into consideration as partners in the region,” Erdogan said at a press conference during his White House visit, “and it's going against a global agreement we reached.”
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