U.S. lobbyist documents show working for Turkish Business Council means working for Erdoğan government

New Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) documents show Washington-based lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs has filed a new revision to report that its working relationship with the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAIK) “may be supervised or directed by” Turkish government representatives and “may inure to their benefit”.

The revised FARA documents were first reported by Eli Lee, a researcher at Washington-based NGO Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW). 

The documents previously stated that Mercury's work for the TAIK would entail "limited coordination with... (Turkish government) representatives".

TAIK chairman Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, a former business partner of U.S. President Donald Trump who managed the Trump Tower properties in Istanbul, wrote a letter to the Washington Post in July which criticised columnist David Ignatius for writing an op-ed and saying that  TAIK is working under the auspices of the Erdogan govrenrment. Yalcindag said, "We are not state-sponsored, as Mr. Ignatius asserted" in his letter.

However, new revisions show lobbying for the TAIK in Washington entails a great deal of supervision by the Turkish government. 

Lee also revealed that before the 37th Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkey Relations in April 2019, lobbyists at Mercury Public Affairs contacted “seemingly every member of Congress”, asking them to meet with Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.

“There are pages and pages of these (phone calls by Mercury Public Affairs). Did any of them bite?" Lee said.

The revised documents said the TAIK “consists of private member companies that have business ties with the U.S. Principal operates under the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK), which in turn operates indirectly under the auspices of the Turkish Ministry of Trade (MOT)”.

The documents continue to note: “Due to overlapping priorities, registrant's work may be supervised or directed by, or coordinated with DEIK representatives and administration representatives, and may inure to their benefit.“
TAIK

The same registrar, Mercury Public Affairs, however noted differently in an April document.

“Due to overlapping priorities, registrant's work occasionally entails limited coordination with DEIK and administration representatives, and registrant is separately registered for work performed on behalf of the Turkish government and reports accordingly,” it said.

TAIK

Both the TAIK and the Turkish government have been paying Mercury $1,150,000 for the last six months, according to Lee.

The TAIK did not convene its annual American-Turkish Council annual meeting this year. The American Turkish Council (ATC) and the U.S.-Turkey Business Council (USTBC) announced their integration in September 2019, bringing the ATC’s 40 years of political independence to an end.

The ATC has traditionally served as an impartial business association which did not answer the dictates of either the U.S. or Turkish governments. It worked to protect its independence and promote bilateral business and investment relations between its members. However, the things have changed recently.

This saga began in the aftermath of the 2013 Gezi Park protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – the biggest anti-government demonstrations since he came to power in 2003. Former U.S. ambassador James Holmes, the ATC’s president at the time, criticised Erdoğan’s crackdown on the protesters and spoke out about the state of Turkish democracy at several panels.

In 2018, Ahval reported that the ATC risked losing its status after 40 years, a year before it actually happened:

General Jim Jones, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, is still the chairman of the council. Under his watch, the ATC, which is supposed to be an independent business organisation, continued its partnership with the Turkish government-controlled TAIK even after it had lost its autonomy.

To be able to maintain its autonomy, according to the bylaws of the business group, the council should maintain its independence and its status as a U.S. organisation and 51 percent of its members be U.S. companies. Some have doubts that the council meets these requirements.

Ahval reported in 2018 that TAIK has chosen Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ as successor of Ekim Alptekin.

Alptekin also the former employer of Mike Flynn, who was Trump’s first National Security Adviser until he was forced to resign in February 2017 when details emerged of his dealings with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Alptekin paid Flynn $530,000 in 2016 to promote Turkish interests in the United States, a role which allegedly involved Flynn trying to help to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher that Turkey blames for the 2016 coup attempt.

Some in Washington are questioning the appointment as well. Yalçındağ had to step down as director general of the Doğan Media Group when leaked emails showed he had been reporting daily developments at the private media conglomerate to a staunchly, rival pro-Erdoğan media group.