Corrupt Politicians and Tools of the Gulen Movement

Corrupt Politicians and Tools of the Gulen Movement
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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gulen Politicians Trips to Baku Conference raises ethics question


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Lawmakers' trips to Baku conference raise ethics questions Question lingers: Who paid tab for luxury jaunt prior to sanction vote? By Will Tucker and Lise Olsen July 26, 2014 | Updated: July 27, 2014 12:16am

In May 2013, Richard Lugar, former U.S. senator and onetime chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, took the podium at a sleek, modern convention center in the capital of Azerbaijan and urged the U.S. Congress to exempt a natural gas field in the Caspian Sea from economic sanctions against Iran. The Baku conference was sponsored in part by SOCAR, the Azeri national oil company, and the vast Shah Deniz gas field was a potential game-changer in the country's quest to become a major player in global energy circles. But one of SOCAR's partners in the Shah Deniz project was the Iranian national oil company, NIOC, and Congress was considering a new round of sanctions against Iran, Azerbaijan's neighbor, that could potentially derail a $28 billion project. The Azeris, SOCAR and other major energy partners in the Shah Deniz project desperately wanted an exemption. Ten congressmen and 35 staffers accepted all- expense-paid trips to the Baku conference. In Lugar's audience that day were three members of the U.S. House of Representatives who sit on the House Foreign Affairs committee considering Iranian sanctions - Texas Reps. Steve Stockman and Ted Poe, both Republicans; and Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. Less than two months later, the day before the House vote, the Shah Deniz exemption mysteriously appeared in the final draft of the sanctions bill, which passed. It's unclear who engineered that last-minute change. Ethics rules at issue A Houston Chronicle analysis of reports that Stockman, Poe, Meeks and the seven other U.S. lawmakers later filed with the House Ethics Committee show that none disclosed any sponsorship of their Baku conference trips by corporations, foreign governments or lobbyists.

 Taking a foreign trip to a conference sponsored by corporations that employ lobbyists appears to be a violation of congressional ethics rules, according to the House ethics manual. The conference in Azerbaijan's capital included a discussion by Kemal Oksuz, right, with President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe. Larry Luxner The conference in Azerbaijan's capital included a discussion by Kemal Oksuz, right, with President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe. Only five of the 10 American lawmakers who made the Baku trip agreed to respond to the Chronicle's questions and said they complied with disclosure requirements. The 2013 conference, called "U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for Future," was held at the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, a gleaming white architectural masterpiece by the Caspian Sea that, though named for a despot, serves as a symbol of Azerbaijan's transformation from former Soviet-bloc state to an energy-rich political player. SOCAR, along with other Azeri government interests, has become one of Washington, D.C.'s big spenders in efforts to win American allies to get its petroleum products to markets worldwide. Public records, programs, photos, emails and interviews collected by the Chronicle confirm that lobbyists, the Azeri government and energy companies all participated in the elaborate Baku gathering. In addition to the 10 U.S. House members and staffers, state legislators and local politicians accepted all-expense-paid trips to the conference, which was festooned with the logos of SOCAR's powerful energy allies, including BP and ConocoPhillips.

Along with Stockman and Poe, Texas lawmakers Sheila Jackson Lee and Ruben Hinojosa, both Democrats, made the trip. At least four congressmen took along a spouse or fiancé. Some flew first-class and extended their trips with stays in luxury hotels in Turkey. The congressional travel tabs alone totaled $270,000, trip reports compiled by the Chronicle show. That doesn't include fees or expenses paid to former government officials, like Lugar, who attended as speakers. He declined an interview request. And according to documents, those bills were covered by five related, U.S.-based Turkic nonprofit organizations, one of which, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, is based in Houston and described itself as the event's "organizer." Under federal law, the Turquoise Council was required to disclose any corporate support or foreign government assistance for the Baku congressional trips. The Chronicle's analysis indicates it did not. Scandals led to reforms Scandals involving jaunts enjoyed by lawmakers to Caribbean islands and lavish European golf outings prompted the House of Representatives in 2008 to approve reforms that banned lobbyists and corporations that employ U.S. lobbyists from planning or funding foreign trips. But foreign governments or corporations can still donate to nonprofits that give foreign trips to congressmen - a loophole that has created a boom in nonprofit-funded trips - provided both the nonprofits and the lawmakers disclose such support. "Knowing the sponsors of these fact-finding trips gives voters the opportunity to hold their representatives accountable for any improper relationships. Without transparency there is no accountability," said Benjamin Freeman, a senior policy adviser at the nonpartisan Third Way in Washington, D.C. "How often does this happen? The honest answer is that we have no idea, because we don't know who many of these sponsors are. That must change." The Baku conference, the marquee event of the congressional trips, featured a speech from Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, whose family controls much of his country's wealth, and focused on Azerbaijan's political and energy agenda. It enjoyed substantial corporate support, including sponsorships from BP, ConocoPhillips and Caspian Drilling, as well as from SOCAR itself.

Energy giant BP confirmed with the Chronicle that it contributed $10,000 for the convention and gave more again this year for a follow-up event in Washington. In an email, Houston-based organizer Kemal Oksuz said the Turquoise Council received $10,000 from various sponsors for the Baku conference, whose names appeared on the conference website. But Oksuz did not disclose that in travel forms he filed for congressmen who accepted funding from his group. Oksuz said he did not have to disclose corporate sponsorships, in part, because "those contributions always came after the conventions." Nondisclosures illegal Lawmakers who went to Baku and nonprofits alike should have disclosed any corporate conference sponsorships, said Ken Boehm, an expert in congressional ethics who reviewed the records at the Chronicle's request. By failing to do so, even after seeing event banners and websites listing sponsors, congressmen may have violated ethics rules, he said.

Leaders of nonprofits that organized trips to Baku may have violated federal law by failing to disclose corporate sponsors, said Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a nonprofit that promotes ethics in government. "Once the corporate sponsors admit their paid involvement, it's game over for whoever signed the House pre-trip forms stating falsely that there was no such sponsorship," he said. To pass muster, congressional "fact-finding" trips abroad must be organized principally for education purposes. Congressional officials must first ask the House Ethics Committee for permission to go, and sponsors must affirm that lobbyists will neither be involved in planning nor accompany House members on the trip. Nonprofits sponsoring trips must disclose support from corporations or foreign agents. And, once they return to the United States, lawmakers must report true sponsors of trips to the best of their knowledge. Records show that Meeks did not disclose his Baku trip expenses until a year after the deadline. Meeks did not respond to a request for comment. Congressman Poe and two other Houston-area House members - Stockman and Jackson Lee - spoke at the conference in Baku at the invitation of the Turquoise Council. All three took flights that cost from $10,500 to $12,000, more than the current advertised first-class fares. Stockman got another $5,000 in campaign contributions in three installments that same month from Oksuz personally. Neither Stockman nor Jackson Lee responded to any questions. Poe said all trip expenses were properly disclosed. "The congressman does not believe he was lobbied in Baku," said spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes. "He viewed the events as informational." Hinojosa emphasized that "all expenses were also reported and approved. The purpose for the trip was to learn more about U.S. interests, and in my case, educational programs that the Azerbaijani government is developing." Dominic Gabello, chief of staff for Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said her boss used the trip as an "opportunity to learn more about the challenges Azerbaijan faces" and specifically questioned Azeri leaders about how they deal with poverty. "She has not been lobbied about specific issues," Gabello said. Vague tax records Oksuz, a Houston public relations director, serves as president of the Turquoise Council. He told the lone U.S. journalist present in Baku that the event cost around $1.5 million and that he'd offered speakers fees of $2,500. Some accepted gifts of hand-woven rugs, too, he told the Washington Diplomat.

Kemal Oksuz leads two nonprofits that share the same suite in a Galleria office tower, tax records show. Both groups were identified as sponsors or organizers of the Baku conference, and both have accepted money from SOCAR. One group, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan, operates as a U.S.-based public relations arm of SOCAR, according to foreign government lobbying disclosures filed in 2014. Via email, Oksuz answered a few basic questions, but then repeatedly delayed and canceled interviews requested by the Chronicle. He did not respond to requests to provide updated financial records that his nonprofit must disclose under state and federal laws. The Turquoise Council's 2012 nonprofit tax return, available on the Internet, is "bare bones," discloses no expenses related to trips for elected officials and provides unusually vague descriptions of major funding sources, said David Nelson, a Houston attorney who specializes in nonprofit law. '

Educational' trips Records show the Turquoise Council shared Baku congressional trip expenses with four other interconnected and obscure nonprofit organizations run by Turkic Americans, all of which claim to use "educational" trips to promote cross-cultural understanding, according to a Houston Chronicle review of dozens of federal disclosure records and nonprofit tax returns. The groups included the Turkic American Federation of Midwest, based in Chicago; an umbrella group called the Council of Turkic American Associations, based in New York City and the Turkic American Alliance, based in Washington, D.C.. Each group leader identified his own nonprofit as lone trip sponsor. Faruk Taban, leader of the Turkic American Alliance, said his group works to coordinate efforts among 240 different community associations. Generally, those groups work to "foster dialogue and understanding between Turkic states - in this specific case, Azerbaijan - and the U.S. Our work focuses as much on promoting understanding between the countries as between the communities," he said via email. Many of those nonprofits are led by followers of Fetullah Gulen, a moderate Turkish ex-imam who lives in exile in an enclave in Pennsylvania but wields a philosophical and political influence throughout the Islamic world.

Many Gulenists are involved in prep schools in Turkey and in Azerbaijan, as well as in charter schools in the United States, including the Harmony Schools in Texas. Denies hiring lobbyists Collectively, Turkic groups have funded 272 foreign trips for members of Congress and their staffs from 2009-2013, according to information analyzed by the Chronicle from a database of travel data compiled by LegiStorm. Together they have helped make Turkey the top foreign travel destination for members of Congress, after Israel. Trips to Azerbaijan are far less common. Oksuz said the Turquoise Council has no formal ties to Gulen. He denied retaining any lobbyists or foreign agents in disclosures he made as a Baku 2013 trip sponsor. Other records show that a SOCAR official in Azerbaijan, who normally would have nothing to do with visa approvals, helped Oksuz obtain visas for 21 people, including members of Congress and a lobbyist, Ari Mittleman of the Washington firm Roberti&White, a registered foreign agent. Records show lobbyists attended the conference - and two reported meeting with congressmen the day of their 12-hour return flight to the US.

There is no rule against lobbyists and congressmen meeting on foreign soil, though there is one forbidding them from accompanying each other on trips. "Once they get members overseas, it's kind of back to the wild, wild West of lobbying," said Freeman. "So long as the foreign agent and policymaker are overseas; the requirements for reporting meetings are void." Historical connection Azeri interests have continued conversations with D.C. lawmakers with help from one of the nonprofits run by Oksuz. In April, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan held another "U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for Future" convention, this time at the Willard Hotel in Washington. It is the lobby of the Willard, where influential men once stood around hoping to buttonhole President Ulysses S. Grant, that inspired the term "lobbyists." Many of the same sponsors from last year returned, including SOCAR, BP and ConocoPhillips. But several U.S. lawmakers advertised as speakers did not show up. Then came a late announcement: Rep. Steve Stockman would speak. Stockman walked to the podium and, in a booming voice, called for the U.S. to "stand by" Azerbaijan. "We have a lot of friends in the media who want to criticize this country, but I've been there," he said. "The future is there … One day I hope for a direct flight from Houston to Baku."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gulen Turkish Movement Buys US influence HOUSTON — The secretive religious and political movement inspired by the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen has become a potent, and surprising, force in a set of obscure races for the House of Representatives, as Gülen sympathizers around the country donate tens of thousands of dollars to an overlapping set of candidates. The movement, whose leader draws intense interest from Washington to Ankara from his compound in rural Pennsylvania, has long involved itself in American life, organizing in particular around a group of charter schools and Turkish community institutions. Started in Turkey as a moderate Islamic movement in the secular 1960s and 1970s, the movement — also known as Hizmet, roughly meaning “service” in Turkish — runs schools, businesses, and media outlets around the world. There is no formal membership: Affiliates say they are “inspired” by Gülen and many groups aligned with him deny any official affiliation. But the movement’s agenda, in Turkey, has clarified in recent months. Gülen — who left Turkey for the Poconos in 1999 following charges that he was attempting to undermine the Turkish state — broke bitterly with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year over a corruption investigation that has rocked Erdogan’s party and that the prime minister has blamed on Gülen and his followers. Here in the United States, meanwhile, Gülen’s allies have been stepping up their involvement in U.S. politics, emerging as a force in districts from South Texas to South Brooklyn. Liberal Democrats like Yvette Clarke, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Al Green, and conservative Republicans like Ted Poe and Pete Olson have all benefitted from donors affiliated with Gülen in one way or another. Leaders in the movement deny that there is any top-down organization of the donations (or, indeed, that the Gülen movement has any organization at all), but the patterns of giving suggest some level of coordination in a community beginning to flex its political muscle. Gülen himself reportedly told followers in 2010 that they could only visit him in the Poconos if they donated to their local congressman, according to the Wall Street Journal, though Gülen has denied the comment. The donations, taken together, comprise significant totals for some U.S. House members in relatively safe seats. For instance, people connected to the Gülen-inspired charter schools donated $23,000 to Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in October 2013 — a large sum considering Jackson Lee has raised just more than $130,000 this cycle in individual contributions, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission. The state of Texas is home to Harmony Public Schools, the Gülen-inspired network of charter schools that have inspired some controversy; the Harmony schools, and other Gülen-related educational institutions around the country, have been accused of abusing foreign worker visas and of using taxpayer money to favor Turkish businesses over others. And Houston and its southwest suburbs are a hub for the movement in the U.S. Many Turkish immigrants who live there work for Harmony or for other organizations with ties to the Gülen movement, such as the Texas Gulf Foundation, the Raindrop Foundation, or North American University, a relatively new STEM-focused school that sits on the side of a desolate highway in north Houston. Other Houstonites affiliated with Gülen groups gave to Rep. Henry Cuellar, Rep. Pete Olson, Rep. Ted Poe, Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, and others. Though bundling political donations is common, Gülen-affiliated Houstonites said there was no top-down coordination of the donations. For instance, Metin Ekren, a Harmony educator who gave $2,000 to Sheila Jackson Lee in 2012 and $1,500 to her in 2013, said that Harmony did not tell its employees to donate. Ekren said he and “friends in the office” discuss such things, but that “usually Sheila Jackson Lee has a kind of donation meeting” and that’s how he had donated. He said he gives to other Democrats as well, though records show he has mostly given to Republicans, including Poe, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker. Erdal Caglar, Harmony’s chief financial officer, gave $1,500 to Jackson Lee in October 2013 at a fundraiser, he said. “She has been always a supporter of our schools,” Caglar said. “She has attended all major events that Harmony organized. And she expressed — you know, Harmony’s STEM, and she’s supporting STEM education.” Caglar said that Jackson Lee was helping Harmony’s effort to open a charter school in Washington, D.C. “As an educator, we support whoever supports our mission and vision and supports our activities,” Caglar said. Jackson Lee has taken an interest in charter schools recently, appearing at a school choice rally with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in January. Her campaign manager did not return requests for comment. Gülen sympathizers in Brooklyn, N.Y., have also begun to involve themselves in American political life, according to publicly available campaign finance documents from the last two election cycles. Many of New York’s Gülenist donors are based in Sheepshead Bay, a working-class neighborhood on the southern edge of Brooklyn that is home to a tight-knit Turkish community. Several members of the community said the Gülen movement operates out of the local branch of the Turkish Cultural Center, and that it counts many prosperous business owners as sympathizers. (An official from the center told BuzzFeed that many of the center’s organizers are “inspired” by Gülen, but that the organization itself is independent from him). Several local Gülen sympathizers told BuzzFeed that they feel attracted to the movement because of its tolerant religious ideas and its center-right, pro-business politics. Many of them have donated sums to the same U.S. politicians — including Rep. Yvette Clarke and Rep. Ed Towns, both New York Democrats, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas. Nonetheless, several Gülen supporters said that the movement played little role in their decision to give money to candidates. “We want to show the American people that Turkish-Americans care,” said Gokhan Karakollukcu, the owner of the Rocca Café on Emmons Avenue and a frequent donor to Clarke. When asked whether people affiliated with the movement had ever tried to influence his giving, Karakollukcu insisted that he had made his own choices and donated his own money. He likes Clarke, Karakollukcu said, because his wife is Jamaican and the congresswoman “does a lot for Caribbean issues.” Selahattin Karakus, who owns and operates Masal Café, said that he has donated to both Democratic and Republican candidates. When asked to name a Republican to whom he had donated, Karakus was unable to remember any of their names. When asked why he had decided to donate to Cuellar, a Democrat who represents a district in Texas several thousand miles away, Karakus said that he had “friends” in Texas and that he wanted to support candidates with strong pro-immigrant stances. (Cuellar introduced a bill with Republican Sen. John Cornyn that would allow the expedited deportation of the tens of thousand of undocumented minors who have recently arrived in the United States). Karakus also said that he supports the movement and that he regularly attends holiday dinners at the Turkish Cultural Center. He said that many of his political choices had emerged from discussions at the center, but was quick to add that nobody had forced him to donate to anyone and that he had only been given “advice” and “suggestions.” The money he donated, he said, was his own. The Gülen movement “doesn’t have any money to give anyone,” he said. “We have to give them money.” Officials at the Turkish Cultural Center in Sheepshead Bay echoed Karakus’ statements, telling BuzzFeed that they do not endorse candidates, solicit donations, or engage in any kind of political fundraising. “We are a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization,” said Suleyman Aydogan, the vice president of the Brooklyn branch of the center. “That would be illegal.” But Aydogan, who said he supports the movement and has personally met Gülen, also said that he has done fundraising for New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and for Sheepshead Bay Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz. He said that his role in the Turkish Cultural Center, his sympathies for Gülen, and his work as a political fundraiser were completely separate from one another. When asked whether the Turkish Cultural Center does any kind of political work, Aydogan said that it extends to inviting politicians to speak at dinners and other events. He suggested that donors might have met politicians at these dinners, or perhaps at the convention that the Turkic American Alliance, the center’s parent organization, holds every year in Washington, D.C. “We invite everyone, but not everyone shows up,” Aydogan said. “That’s how we know who supports the Turkish community.” Spokespeople for the members of Congress who have been on the receiving end of Gülenist largesse said they weren’t aware of any connection between their members and the movement. Cuellar, for example, is one of the main beneficiaries of Gülen-affiliated money, receiving donations from nearly 30 people connected to the movement in the 2014 election cycle. Cuellar has taken an interest in Turkish affairs and is a member of the Caucus on U.S.–Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans. Donations from people connected to the Gülen movement to Cuellar came not only from Texas, but also New York and Illinois. Cuellar’s campaign manager said that the campaign wasn’t aware of any particular fundraising efforts targeting the Gülen movement. “I’m not aware of a specific effort that we made” with the group, Cuellar’s campaign manager Colin Strothers said. “We raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and it comes from all over the place. We notice every check and every online donation that we get.” Strothers said these kinds of donations typically come from fundraising events where “we show up and they’ve invited friends and co-workers and peers and things like that.” A spokesman for Olson, who raised thousands from several people connected to the movement in September 2013, has appeared at events for the Turkic American Alliance and the Gülen Institute, and whose chief of staff traveled to Istanbul and Ankara on the Turkic American Alliance’s dime last year, said Olson had no particular connection to the movement. “Congressman Olson is honored to represent one of the most ethnically diverse counties in America,” said his campaign consultant Chris Homan. “As such, he meets with people to discuss free trade, improving economic relationships between Texas and overseas markets, and strengthening U.S. partnerships with nations who share our national security concerns. His commitment to stronger economies and stronger democracies has earned him broad support from across the district. We are not aware of any connection to the groups you mentioned.” The Turkic American Alliance, the umbrella group that encompasses a number of U.S.-based Gülenist organizations, held a plush iftar dinner attended by lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill last week. Green, Jackson Lee, and Clarke, as well as Reps. Andre Carson and Joe Garcia attended. Attendees filled about two-thirds of the Cannon Caucus Room; when a reporter arrived, staff asked her to sit near the front since it was looking a little thin. Members of Congress spoke, and then a video about Ramadan played before the breaking of the fast with soup and fried fish at sunset. Faruk Taban, the president of the alliance, told BuzzFeed in an interview that his organization does not organize members of its groups for political donations. “We don’t do that kind of stuff, we’re a 501©(3),” Taban said. Their focus is more on building relationships with members of Congress by, for example, taking them on paid trips to Turkey and Azerbaijan; the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and the Council of Turkic American Associations, both TAA member groups, have taken members including Cuellar, Clarke, Jackson Lee, Poe, and Rep. Steve Stockman on such trips in the past two years. Taban is planning another trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in September. Taban attributed the clusters of donations to the tight-knit nature of the immigrant communities they come from. “Like any diaspora communities they have strong ties among them,” he said. “So if anything happens, it’s word of mouth; they have friends and go to the same ethnic restaurants, they shop at the same ethnic restaurants.” The movement’s involvement in U.S. politics, he said, began in 2007, when Turkish immigrants lobbied to squash an Armenian genocide recognition bill. “After that it’s kind of got the momentum,” he said. The major Gülen organizations, he said, play a role in helping people from local communities get involved in DC, but that’s it. Gülen himself is “a very shy person” and is not personally involved in asking his followers to contribute, Taban said. Asked how young teachers at the charter schools could afford to give maximum donations in congressional races, Taban said, “Turkish people are very generous” and that “a lot of business people in the community reach out to other people.” The alliance, he said, is more focused on state legislatures. And Taban “doesn’t necessarily see the correlation” between the political strife in Turkey and the political giving in the U.S. But in “all kind of activities we are growing,” Taban said. “The scope and the size and everything else, we try to do more.”