Lobbying firm representing fugitive Turkish bank closely tied to Trump administration - report

A U.S. lobbying firm that ended its contract with Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank last week after the bank was indicted for its part in a scheme to help Iran evade sanctions had deep access to the White House, said Courthouse News reporter Adam Klasfeld on Tuesday.

The access helped shield the bank from prosecution for years and was influential in dealings between the White House and the Turkish government, which was also a client, Klasfeld’s report said.

Ballard Partners, the firm run by U.S. President Donald Trump’s top Florida fundraiser Brian Ballard - described as the most powerful lobbyist under the current White House - signed a $125,000-per-month contract with Halkbank in 2017 after an executive from the bank was charged with creating a scheme to funnel Iranian money through the bank past U.S. sanctions.

The firm announced on Oct. 16 it would no longer represent the bank, a day after U.S. prosecutors indicted it for money laundering in the scheme. The bank has been declared a fugitive after failing to comply in the proceedings against it. 

Ballard Partners made roughly $2 million from Halkbank and the Turkish government, which signed a separate contract with the firm in 2017, and has “bundled $295,000 this past quarter to Trump Victory, a political action committee and has donated tens of thousands of dollars more to Trump’s campaign and associates,” Klasfeld said.

Three of Ballard Partners’ top lobbyists helped push Turkey and Halkbank’s case, with former U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler charging the Turkish government $8,000 in travel expenses on May 11, 2017, the day the firm signed Turkey as a client.

“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had his first Oval Office summit with Trump five days later, as Erdoğan’s bodyguards assaulted peaceful protesters on the streets of Washington. The White House remained silent about the incident,” Klasfeld said.

Ballard Partners was also involved in negotiations between Ankara and Washington over the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor Turkey accused of espionage.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence threatened sanctions on Turkey if it did not release the pastor in July 2018, days after the firm clinched a meeting with Pence’s chief of staff, Klasfeld said.

“Ballard lobbyists regularly contacted major U.S. and Turkish officials over the ensuing months, including Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow, Pence’s chief of staff and Trump-appointed Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell,” he said.

The sanctions threats were eventually dropped after Turkey released Brunson, but as the lobbying activities continued, Klasfeld said:

 “Turkey continued to hold three U.S. consulate workers in captivity with relative silence from the White House, and Halkbank kept an indictment at bay for more than two years, even after its ex-general manager Süleyman Aslan and executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla had been charged with the multibillion-dollar conspiracy.”

The manoeuvring around the Halkbank case was also joined by Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor who has served as one of Trump’s closest advisers and joined his legal team last year.

Bloomberg reported this month that Giuliani had pressured former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to join him in pushing to have the charges against Reza Zarrab, a defendant in the Iran sanctions case dropped, and the former mayor “shuttled between Washington and Turkey’s capital of Ankara on Zarrab’s behalf,” Klasfeld said.

Meanwhile, McDermott Will, a law firm that represented Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, was hired by Halkbank to defend Atilla, the bank’s executive who was tried and sentenced for his part in the Iran sanctions-busting scheme.

Atilla returned to a hero’s welcome in Turkey this year after serving out his sentence for the scheme, and was appointed chairman of the Istanbul Stock Exchange this week.

“I suppose that’s one way of integrating back into society someone who has been convicted of financial wrongdoing,” U.S. District Judge Richard Berman commented in court discussing the Halkbank case on Tuesday.