Turks in the U.S. vying for VP Pence's attention - Lobbying series 2-

This article is the second in a series examining Turkish and Turkish-American lobbying in the United States. The first article examined how the Turkish government and the Gulen Movement have cultivated ties with lobbyists with connections to the Trump administration. One member of the Trump administration in particular has been a target for lobbying by both pro-government and Gulenist groups: Vice President Pence.

If your goal is to influence the policy direction of the current administration, Vice President Mike Pence is an obvious target. In a chaotic White House he is “the administration’s most effective and reassuring messenger” according to Tim Alberta of Politico. Pence likely has significant power over the positions and policies adopted by the administration. An advisor of former Republican presidential candidate John Kasich told the New York Times that Trump offered to make him “the most powerful Vice President in history” if he would agree to be his running mate. Newt Gingrich told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker that Trump, his Chief of Staff John Kelly and Pence are the three most powerful figures in this administration, and that Pence is at an advantage as he is the only member of the administration that Trump can’t fire.

“Vice Presidents beginning with Walter Mondale have been important parts of White House decision-making and accordingly they have become targets of those seeking to influence American policy, including lobbyists,” Joel K. Goldstein, Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law and expert on the institution of the Vice Presidency, told Ahval. “Some aspects of the Trump administration may make the vice president a particular target of lobbyists representing the interest of other countries. The administration has been more receptive to lobbyists generally than some other recent administrations.”

Dr. Goldstein also mentioned Pence’s previous government experience as being an asset in this administration. Importantly for those looking to influence to influence the Vice President, Pence’s previous government experience also means that there are previous advisors and staffers of Pence who are now working as lobbyists.

Bill Smith was Pence’s Chief of Staff while Pence was Governor of Indiana. He went on to found the lobbying organization Sexton’s Creek, which has been lobbying for Washington Diplomacy Group (formerly Washington Strategy LLC), one of primary organisations directly advocating fo the Gulen Movement, since June 2017.

According to the disclosure filed by the Washington Diplomacy Group, in 2017 and 2018, they paid Sexton’s Creek $119,000 to lobby the Office of the Vice President on international human rights. When asked if Bill Smith was acting as contact for the Office of the Vice President for their group, Bilal Eksili who is the managing director for the  Gulen affiliated Washington Diplomacy Group, stated “Sexton’s Creek is helping us advance the cause of highlighting Erdoğan’s abuses in Washington.” Bill Smith did not respond to Ahval’s request for comment.

In addition to his official meetings with members of the Turkish government, Pence is also hearing the Turkish government point of view on issues from a Turkish-American organization. The organization lobbying Pence from a pro-government perspective is not a straightforward lobbying group. The Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), according to its website, is a “independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes discussion and dialogue around Turkey’s role in the international community.”

When asked for comment on Turkish lobbying in the US, THO’s President Ali Çınar responded that he is “not a lobbyist or doing a lobbying work for any governments,” and that his organization’s “activities are funded by Turkish and Turkish-American businesses that are listed on our website and these activities are carefully monitored and approved by our attorneys and documented with IRS and other legal entities.”

However, the group undoubtedly has a pro-government point of view, even if it is not officially connected to the Turkish government. The group is also engaging in lobbying in the form of “high level outreach.” The group’s leadership has met with dozens of members of congress in the first quarter of this year alone. Pence also met with Çınar at a roundtable discussion in New York in April. The pro-government Turkish paper, Sabah, reported that Çınar “represented the Turkish-American community” at the meeting and that the Turkish Heritage Organization has been “intensely working on Turkish-American relations.”

The THO’s engagement with Pence raises the issue of what constitutes foreign government lobbying and who is considered a lobbyist. The failure of lobbyists working for foreign governments, like Flynn, to disclose their activities or for organizations like the THO to engage in lobbying by any other name is unfortunately not uncommon or unique to Turkey.

Lydia Dennett of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), an independent, non-partisan watchdog organization told Ahval that until recently, lobbyists for foreign governments “largely flew under the radar of most American citizens and even some within Congress or the Executive branch… Standards that worked well in the 1940s (when the Foreign Agents Registration Act was new) don't work as well today and the law is badly in need of an update in addition to a desperate need for adequate enforcement of it.”

Enforcing the Foreign Agents Registration Act requirements, which got Flynn in trouble, are a major issue. Dennett told Ahval that “a 2014 POGO investigation found that this was a rampant issue and some registrants would even blatantly admit to breaking the law on their disclosure forms with no official reprimand from the [Justice] Department.”

This is compounded by the fact that the Justice Department relies on voluntary compliance from anyone acting as a foreign agent. “It is incredibly difficult to know what we don't know, in other words to know exactly who may be flying under the radar and how,” Dennett went on, “but also because different countries have wildly different priorities which come with wildly different strategies for achieving those goals.”

The break between the Gülen Movement and the Turkish government resulted in the lobbying priorities and strategies of both groups to shift substantially, and not just on the issue of Gülen’s extradition. The next piece will cover the lobbying rhetoric and tactics of both the Gülen Movement and the Turkish government and will discuss whether either side has made an impact on American politics or politicians.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.