Monday, June 20, 2011
Gulen Politicians hesitant to accept FREE Turkey trips!
Some lawmakers have second thoughts about Turkey trips
Updated: 7:26 a.m. Sunday, June 19, 2011
Published: 10:32 p.m. Saturday, June 18, 2011
For Texas legislators, one of the most coveted activities in recent years has been 10-day trips to Turkey, paid for in full or in part by various Turkish American organizations.
A dozen or so state officials, including several Central Texas legislators, have taken the trips in the past several years, and more have been invited this year.
Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said he has taken many fact-finding trips, including to almost every country in Europe, but Turkey stands out.
He said last fall's trip to Turkey was "the best I've taken" because of the high level of government officials and business leaders he was able to meet.
"They are trying to improve relations," Fraser said. "It was a trade mission."
The Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, an umbrella group for Turkish Americans, said the trips are about good will, not lobbying.
"These trips serve to further the business, commercial and cultural relations between Texas and Turkey," said Kemal Oksuz, the council's president-elect.
However, some legislators say they're having second thoughts about going this year, in part because of a recent New York Times article that suggested connections between the Harmony Schools, which operate 33 charter schools in Texas, and several Turkish American businesses and organizations, including the Houston-based Turquoise Council.
The Times questioned whether those connections favor Turkish American companies in bids to build the schools or provide education services.
Additionally, conservative bloggers have implied that the Harmony Schools promote Islam.
Harmony officials deny that their schools teach religion, They also have said they have no connection to the Turquoise Council and its trips.
Despite the denials, Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, said he believes there are connections between the Turquoise Council, the Harmony Schools and the promotion of Islam.
"After I researched it, I'm not interested," he said of the council's invitation to visit Turkey.
As for the Harmony Schools, Miller said, "Apparently it's (involved in) indoctrination of Islam."
Although Turkey is a moderate Muslim nation, Miller said: "That just means they're nonviolent. They won't cut off your head."
Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, said, "It's a tempting trip." But he said he worried about "political overtones" because of reports about Muslim connections.
"If it's true — and I don't know that it is — if they're teaching Islam, that's a problem," said Christian, a supporter of charter schools.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, visited Turkey a few years ago to observe its education system, among other things.
"I don't remember that anyone talked about the Harmony Schools or anything that anyone in Turkey was doing in Texas," she said. "They didn't make a big deal out of religion. It really wasn't brought up. They wanted people to understand their country."
Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, traveled to Turkey five years ago but said he hasn't decided whether to return this year.
"It was the single most educational trip I've taken," he said. "You have in-depth conversations with the people there, the officials in government, in business, different groups, different ethnicities. You meet and talk with real people."
Rep. Ken Legler, R-Pasadena, said he is tempted to go because his district includes part of the Houston Ship Channel and he is interested in encouraging more Turkish trade through the port.
But he said he hesitated to accept an offer for an all-expenses-paid trip for him and his wife.
"It would look like a junket," Legler said. "I'm just worried about how it looks."
Lawmakers who have taken the trips have reported their value at between $3,200 and $3,800.
The itinerary includes visits with government and business leaders, journalists and everyday citizens, as well as sightseeing at tourist attractions and religious sites.
There's also time for fun, including a yacht trip on the Bosporus strait, a balloon flight and shopping in the city's famous bazaars.
Twenty years ago, the Legislature ostensibly outlawed pleasure trips paid for by lobbyists after news reports about lawmakers taking ski trips and golf junkets to exotic locales. But state law still allows lawmakers to travel at someone else's expense for fact-finding trips or if the lawmaker gives a speech or performs some other service that is "more than perfunctory."
That allowed the Association of General Contractors, for example, to pay $72,000 to take a dozen lawmakers to Maui for its annual conference in 2010. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston typically takes 15 or 20 state and local officials to Israel every other year, according to that group's lobbyist.
Over the years, lawmakers have visited a variety of places, from Taiwan to Cuba to Europe. Opportunities to visit Turkey — a U.S. ally and trading partner — have increased dramatically in the past two years with the creation of the Turquoise Council.
The council, which operates in seven states and the nation's capital, raised its profile at the Texas Capitol this year, with a congressional delegation from Turkey visiting Gov. Rick Perry, Education Commissioner Robert Scott and Comptroller Susan Combs, as well as hosting a "Texan-Turkic Friendship Reception" for state officials on Jan. 25.
Oksuz, of the Turquoise Council, said Texas is Turkey's largest business and trading partner among the 50 states and that Houston and Austin are sister cities to Istanbul and Antalya, respectively.
The trips are not limited to legislators. Judges, congressional staffers and other officials are invited.
Travis County Constable Bruce Elfant and his wife went to Turkey in June 2008 with state Reps. Donna Howard, Valinda Bolton and Elliott Naishtat, all Austin Democrats, as guests of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, a Turkish American foundation associated with the Turquoise Council. The officials paid part of their expenses.
"It was amazing," Elfant said. "We talked about our cultures and what we don't understand about one another."
Several Texas lawmakers considering traveling to Turkey later this year are weighing whether the public's perception will be that the trips are more junkets than jaunts associated with their jobs.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, attended the general contractors Maui conference last year and traveled to Cuba to study how that country prepares for hurricanes. But he said he won't accept the Turquoise Council invitation.
"I was looking for the good government purpose for the trip," Whitmire said. "But I haven't found it."
Scott, who oversees charter schools, won't be going to Turkey.
"He just didn't feel comfortable with the perception," said Debbie Ratcliffe, the education agency's communications director.
Scott has allowed the state's more successful charter schools, including Harmony, to expand without obtaining a new charter for each campus.
Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, said he doesn't take trips paid for by someone else.
"As an elected official, I don't think I need to be taking anything of that value," he said. "It could be tied to a future vote."
During this summer's special session, for example, the Legislature is considering whether to have the state back construction bonds for charter schools.
The sponsor of that measure, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she's been invited to Turkey but hasn't gone.
"I generally don't go on trips like that unless there's some legislative issue," she said. "But I can't imagine what it would be in Turkey. It sounds like a cultural affairs tour or something like that."
Oksuz said there is no connection between the trips and the legislation, although his private construction company has built schools for Harmony.
In January, after Fraser and four other senators returned from Turkey, they co-authored Senate Resolution 85 honoring Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim preacher who lives in Pennsylvania but has a large worldwide following, including the Gulen Institute at the University of Houston.
The Senate approved the resolution on the day the Turkish congressional delegation was making the rounds at the Capitol.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, who made the trip with Fraser, said he prepared the resolution in response to his Turkey hosts and his admiration for the people.
"Their attitude — we call it nice Christian values. Of course, it's not Christian," Lucio said. "Humanitarian is the word I'm looking for."
Lucio said he is planning a return visit, courtesy of the Turquoise Council, later this year: "I'd like to see more of the country."
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