Claire Sadar
Jun 05 2018

Turks spend millions over lobbying to fight each other in Washington -1-

On U.S. election day, November 8, 2016, a rather unusual op-ed was published in The Hill by retired General Mike Flynn. The op-ed centred on the alleged crimes and radical ideology of Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999. Though he has lived in the United States for almost 20 years and has directly and indirectly presided over a network of NGOs, interfaith organisations and schools that span the globe, he is far from a household name in this country.

In contrast, for the Turkish government, Gülen is currently public enemy number one, accused of directing his network of followers to overthrow the elected government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on July 15, 2016. More than 200 people were killed in the coup attempt, but before it failed, Flynn was recorded cheering on the putschists, believing they were part of the secular military establishment.

Four months after his premature jubilation over the coup, Flynn’s passionate denunciation of Gülen and new-found support for the Turkish government, struck observers of Turkish politics as odd to say the least. Initially lost in the excitement of the U.S. presidential election, Flynn’s op-ed began to draw attention a few days later. Experts on Turkish politics like St. Lawrence University Professor Howard Eissenstat observed that the piece “look[ed] like it was written by Turkey’s PR firm.”

Eissenstat’s assessment turned out to be spot on. The following months revealed Flynn’s extensive lobbying ties, including to organisations supportive of the Turkish government, and contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington, that ended his brief stint as Trump’s national security advisor.

The seemingly daily slate of scandals emerging from the current U.S. administration has largely pushed Flynn’s ongoing legal issues to the periphery, the lobbying wars in which he briefly played a very public role have continued. This is the first in a series of articles that will explore Turkish government, Gülenist, and other Turkish-American lobbying in the United States.

Affiliates of the Turkish government and supporters of Gülen are both pouring resources into getting their message through to this administration and undermining the efforts of their opponents. The primary targets for both sides are lobbying firms and individuals, like Flynn, with direct ties to the administration. Both the Turkish government and the Gülenists are doing everything they can to ensure their message gets to the president and his most senior advisors.

The main point of contention between the two sides is the fact that Gülen continues to legally reside in the United States despite the fact that, since the coup attempt, the Turkish government has repeatedly demanded he be extradited to Turkey. The Turkish government says the Gülen movement is a terrorist organisation. Ankara has tasked its proxies with convincing the U.S. government and public alike that Gülen and the organisation his followers run, particularly the network of charter schools linked to Gülen supporters and umbrella organisations, are part of a criminal network.

Supporters of Gülen of course deny he is any sort of criminal or terrorist and believe he is being framed for the coup attempt. They argue the Turkish government’s attacks on the Gülenists in Turkey and abroad are part of Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism and attacks on civil society, free speech, and human rights.

Adding a layer of complication for both the Turkish government and the Gülen movement’s lobbying targets is the fact that until 2013 the two were partners and Gülen organisations were de facto outlets of Turkish government policy and attempts to project soft power. Thus the two sides are not only fighting an enemy that knows their strengths and weaknesses intimately, but they are each working with only part of the resources they previously had available.

Both the Turkish government and the Gülen movement are either formally or informally connected to a number of organisations in the United States, many of which are directly involved in lobbying and/or contract out lobbying to large U.S. firms.

Advocating for the Turkish government is an alphabet soup of organisations including the Turkish-American Business Council (TAIK), the American Turkish Council (ATC), the Turken Foundation, and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA). The Turkish embassy in Washington also directly negotiates lobbying contracts on behalf of the government.

The two primary organisations directly advocating for the Gülen Movement are the Washington Diplomacy Group and Alliance for Shared Values. All of these organisations have hired, or sought to hire, lobbyists with connections to Trump.

Until the fallout between the Turkish government and the Gülen movement, TAIK was one of the Turkish instruments of influence the two sides shared. The Turkish government ensured it retained TAIK during the acrimonious 2013 divorce by folding the group into the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey. Since 2014, its chairman has been chosen by a parliamentary commission. Between 2014 and 2017 TAIK’s chairman was Ekim Alptekin, whose consulting firm, Inovo BV, paid Flynn $530,000 to do research on Gülen.

In an extensive interview with Buzzfeed, Alptekin vehemently denied he was a Turkish government agent and also said he did not directly commission the article Flynn published on election day. However, when Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador about sanctions, he also admitted that the Turkish government was directly supervising his lobbying work, including the op-ed that appeared in The Hill.

At the time Alptekin hired Flynn, Trump was of course not yet elected and was not expected to win. However, in November 2016, when Politico asked Robert Kelley, who managed the lobbying portion of Flynn’s contract with Inovo BV, if Flynn was hired because of his relationship with Trump, he responded: “I hope so.”

As reported by Laura Pitel, Flynn also attracted the interest, and the money, of other anti-Gülen Turkish Americans prior to the election, namely Ibrahim Kurtuluş and Halil Mutlu. Pitel reported that until early 2017, Mutlu was chair of the Turken foundation, which counts Erdoğan’s daughter as one of its directors. According to CNN, Kurtuluş was formerly an official at the ATAA, another Turkish-American organisation with a pro-government stance and a history that connects it to the Turkish government. Whether they thought he had a chance at winning or not, pro-government Turkish influencers clearly thought it was worth their time and money to try to make connections with a lobbyist close to Trump even before the election.

Since Trump’s election, the efforts of both the Turkish government and the Gülen movement to forge connections with the administration have unsurprisingly increased. A Turkish businessman, whose name was redacted from the recently released Senate Judiciary Committee transcripts on the Russia investigation, also invited Donald Trump Jr. on a hunting trip shortly after the election. Trump Jr. denies this man is connected to Flynn, but the timing of this trip alone makes it suspicious.

The joint TAIK-ATC annual conference was held at the Trump international hotel in the spring of 2017, and will be there again this autumn. Alptekin has been replaced as the head of TAIK by Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, another Turkish businessman with Trump connections. Yalçındağ is the former head of Doğan Media Group, which owns Trump Towers in Istanbul.

This February, TAIK hired Mercury lobbying group. One of Mercury’s staff members working on behalf of TAIK is Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign and transition staffer. At the beginning of May, Mercury signed an eight-month contract with Turkey worth more than $100,000 per month.

The Turkish government has also directly contracted lobbyists with Trump ties. Former House Armed Services Committee Seapower Chairman Randy Forbes was rumoured to be Trump’s pick for secretary of the Navy and was seen at Trump Tower during the transition period. Forbes was ultimately not tapped and joined the mega lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig in August 2017. Greenberg Traurig has represented Turkey since 2014 and signed a 10-and-a-half month contract with the group in March worth $1.7 million. In February of this year, Forbes registered as a foreign agent for Turkey, his first such filing.

Turkey is also a client of Brian Ballard, who Politico recently dubbed “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington”. According to the Politico profile, Trump is a former client of Ballard’s and they have known each other for 30 years. The Turkish government first hired Ballard Partners in May 2017 for a total annual fee of $1.5 million.

The Turkish government is not only signing new lobbying contracts, it may also be pressuring groups not to work with organisations connected to the Gülen movement. In May of last year, the head of the Gülenist Alliance for Shared Values, Alp Aslandoğan told The Hill that the Turkish government pressured a lobbying group that was working for his organisation, Burson-Marsteller, to drop them as a client. Burson-Marsteller subsequently began working for the Turkish government, signing an eight-month $1.1 million contract with them in May 2017.

Like their Turkish government counterparts, Gülenist organisations are also hiring and cultivating relationships with Trump partisans and administration officials. The Washington Diplomacy group paid Gotham Government Relations $99,000 in 2017 for lobbying services. According to Gawker, Gotham did lobbying work for Trump beginning in 2011 and helped create the illusion of a crowd of supporters at Trump’s campaign announcement event.

Brad Gerstman of Gotham told The Hill last May that “his firm’s lobbying work on behalf of a Gülen-connected group is primarily focused on making the Trump administration aware of how Erdoğan is wielding his influence around the world.” However, Gotham and the Washington Diplomacy group parted ways in February this year. When asked about his group’s break with Gotham, Bilal Eksili of Washington Diplomacy Group would only comment that “we have started and ended different relationships based on the natural course of those contracts”. Gotham did not respond to Ahval’s request for comment.

Both the Turkish government and the Gülen movement are not only hiring Trump-connected lobbyists, but have made targeted efforts to influence Vice President Mike Pence in particular. The next part in this series will discuss lobbying efforts directed at Pence and why he is being targeted by Turkish and Gülenist lobbyists.