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Home News Nation Turkish opposition subsidizes scores of state lawmakers’ trips

Turkish opposition subsidizes scores of state lawmakers’ trips

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More than 150 state legislators from places like Idaho and Texas accepted subsidized junkets from a Turkish opposition group that the country’s government now blames for an attempted coup.

State legislators who rarely get involved in foreign policy matters were courted with international trips.

The invitations came from a powerful religious movement that until recently ran media outlets and a bank before falling out with the government in Turkey, a pivotal U.S. ally that serves as the gateway to the Middle East. Though followers of the movement deny having supported the failed coup, Turkey has asked the United States to extradite its leader, Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Islamic cleric who lives in a compound not in Ankara or Istanbul but in the woods of Pennsylvania.

The Center for Public Integrity documented the extent of the trips, which in some cases cost more than $7,000, and found that some state lawmakers who took them later introduced resolutions supporting Gulen’s controversial Hizmet movement. Some even have supported charter schools that are part of a network from the nation’s capital to California of roughly 160 taxpayer-financed schools that friends of the movement run.

Related: Analysis: House fails in a good way to blunt ethics probes

While some familiar with the lawmakers’ trips frame them as innocuous learning experiences, the trips are meant to transform American community leaders into Gulen sympathizers, according to Joshua Hendrick, a sociologist at Loyola University and a leading expert on the movement.

“It most certainly has the impact of cultivating influence,” Hendrick said. “It is a political effort but it is framed as a grassroots mobilization of dialogue.”

‘Sympathetic to the cause’

The long parade of state legislators who have accepted the heavily subsidized trips from the Gulen movement includes some influential figures. The man known as Illinois’ most powerful state politician, Democratic Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, traveled four times to Turkey on trips that nonprofit groups associated with Gulen’s Hizmet — or “service” — movement had sponsored.

In 2011, at least a 10th of Idaho’s state legislators toured the land of the Ottomans on the movement’s dime.

Between 2006 and 2016, Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, traveled four times to Turkey, courtesy of Gulen movement nonprofits. (Photo: Seth Perlman, AP)

At least four Texas lawmakers who have served on legislative education committees went on the sponsored trips. The Lone Star state is home to the most Gulen-linked charter schools.

California has about a dozen of the schools, as do Florida and Ohio. Arizona, Illinois and Missouri also are among the states that have them.

In total, the Center for Public Integrity used lawmakers’ annual disclosures and news reports to identify 151 state legislators from 29 states who toured Turkey between 2006 and 2015 thanks to more than two dozen nonprofits associated with the Gulen movement.

Among those who went on the trips were lawmakers who had rarely traveled overseas. Many had little knowledge of Gulen or Turkish politics. Few of their states have trade connections to Turkey.

But state legislators represent the political farm team of leaders who may someday play in the big leagues of Congress or beyond.

Thom Tillis, for one, was first elected to the North Carolina statehouse in 2006 and went on a trip to Turkey with a Gulen-movement group in 2011. Fast forward: The Republican is now a U.S. senator serving on the powerful Armed Services Committee, which oversees members of the U.S. military stationed in Turkey.

State lawmakers also shape education policy and hold the purse strings on state budgets, which finance charter schools.

► Related: Turkish exile sparks questions about Congress travel, charter schools

“It’s effective public relations,” said William Martin, a Rice University sociologist who went on two sponsored trips. “That can affect their schools. It can affect the things they would like to do.”

The schools have denied connections to Gulen, but experts and even some friends of the movement call the links obvious.

“It’s like any other lobbying or political operation. They’re doing this to advance their cause.”

James Jeffrey, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Individuals with long ties to the Gulen movement often have founded and run the charter schools, and the schools frequently hire Turkish teachers, sponsor their visas and move them among schools. Many were set up with the help of nonprofits tied to the movement.

Gulen supporters say the trips for lawmakers promoted intercultural dialogue, a key component of Gulen’s teaching. The former imam preaches a unique brand of Islamic mysticism paired with Turkish nationalism and respect for modern science.

“We wanted to act as a kind of a bridge” between Americans and Turks, said Vice President Atilla Kahveci of the California-based Pacifica Institute, a Gulen-movement group that has organized lawmaker trips. “We didn’t have any kind of, from our point of view, ulterior agenda, no matter how it seems from outside.”

But other experts think the trips have political motivations.

“It’s like any other lobbying or political operation,” said James Jeffrey, who served as ambassador to Turkey under President George W. Bush and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. “They’re doing this to advance their cause.”

► Related: Congress stops traveling to Turkey after ethics probes, political turmoil

American sympathizers have stuck up for Gulen and his followers. Since 2011, state lawmakers in 23 states have introduced at least 54 resolutions honoring Turkey or Turkish Americans, some of which specifically praised Gulen or Gulen-movement organizations, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from Quorum, a legislative tracking service.

The Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2011 recognizing Gulen for his “inspirational contributions to the promotion of global peace and understanding.” A Gulen-movement group called the Niagara Foundation sponsored at least 32 trips to Turkey for Illinois state lawmakers between 2008 and 2012, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

In Kansas, former state Rep. Tom Moxley, a Republican who went on a subsidized trip to Turkey in 2011, sponsored a resolution the following year that praised Turkey’s diversity and called for the creation of a Kansan-Turkish Friendship Network.

“I’m more sympathetic to the cause, the belief system of this group of Muslims, versus the ones that are in power in Turkey today,” he said. “We’re watching a dictator take over at a time when the American government can least afford to lose them as a friend.”

A movement centered in the Poconos

Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s most wanted man, lives tucked in the green mountains of the Poconos, a Pennsylvania tourism spot better known for its honeymoon suites with heart-shaped tubs than as an incubator for international insurrection.

Gulen, now 75, began preaching in Turkey by the early 1960s and quickly drew followers to his messages of devotion to Islam paired with success in the modern world.

Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen speaks July 17, 2016, to members of the media at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pa. (Photo: Chris Post, AP)

He moved to the United States in 1999, ostensibly for medical treatment, though he left just before the secularist regime ruling at the time accused him of threatening to overthrow the government. Gulen later obtained a U.S. green card on the grounds that he had special abilities in the field of education.

Gulen’s movement in Turkey continued to grow, aligning itself with the conservative AKP party that now rules the country.

His followers established dormitories and schools in Turkey and elsewhere, as well as a network of nonprofit groups and foundations including those in the United States that sponsor lawmakers’ trips, such as the Pacifica Institute and the American Turkish Friendship Association.

The nonprofits frequently share open allegiance to Gulen’s Hizmet movement, staff or other ties, according to Hendrick, the Loyola sociologist who mapped the connections among the groups. Hendrick calls their informal connections to each other and Gulen part of the movement’s “strategic ambiguity,” which makes it more difficult for outsiders to assess the movement’s size and power.

But tensions in Turkey flared in 2013, and the AKP blamed its former political allies for the attempted coup in July 2016.

Though Gulen and his followers have denied responsibility for the recent coup attempt, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has cracked down on the Gulen movement, arresting 40,000 people and firing more than 100,000 soldiers, teachers and civil servants. Erdogan also has moved to silence dissenters and jailed more than 100 journalists.

► Related: Ethics Committee lawmakers visit Turkish groups they investigated

Today, Turkish leaders call Gulen a terrorist.

Turkey also has hired Amsterdam and Partners LLP, an international law firm that specializes in “political advocacy and cross-border disputes,” to pursue investigations into U.S. schools connected to the movement. The Turkish embassy did not return requests for comment.

In an August TV interview, John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, connected the Gulen movement to Turkey’s failed coup. (Photo: U.S. Embassy, Turkey)

Gulen was not available for an interview, according to the Alliance for Shared Values, a Gulen-movement umbrella group based in New York that handles his media requests.

“We hope that Americans see that he is a peaceful man who has been wrongly accused by an autocratic Turkish president,” said Chief Executive Mustafa Akpinar of the Rumi Forum, a Gulen-movement nonprofit based in the District of Columbia. “We are confident in the rule of law in the United States and expect due process for Turkey’s misguided extradition request.”

All this has put the United States in a tricky position. U.S. officials have offered to help Turkey investigate the attempted coup while simultaneously warning its ally to live up to “democratic principles” in dealing with suspects.

Though the U.S. has not formally said who was to blame for the coup, two U.S. ambassadors to the country, including current ambassador John Bass, have made the connection to Gulen. In an August television interview, Bass referenced “the apparent involvement of a large number” of Gulen’s followers in the attempted takeover.

Even if this is true, experts say Gulen himself and his American followers might not have been directly involved in the failed takeover.

In September, after Turkey asked the U.S. to extradite Gulen back to Turkey, the Obama administration promised to consider it but did not move quickly.

► Related: U.S. lawmakers got suspect Turkish campaign cash

Where the new administration stands is not certain. Former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s national security adviser, has called Gulen shady and his schools a scam.

State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said the agency had no update on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Turkey trips for state legislators have dried up amid the current political upheaval.

Fact-finding mission or junket?

Some lawmakers are bewildered that the groups paying for their trips now are swept up in Turkey’s current political turmoil.

“I can’t imagine what they would have wanted out of the North Dakota state Legislature,” said Democrat Ben Hanson, a former North Dakota state representative who went on a Gulen-group sponsored trip in 2013 with six other lawmakers from his state. North Dakota does not allow charter schools and has few ties to the Middle East.

“I can’t imagine what they would have wanted out of the North Dakota state Legislature. It seemed like their group was trying to educate people and trying to bridge relations.”

Democrat Ben Hanson, former state representative from West Fargo, N.D.

“It seemed like their group was trying to educate people and trying to bridge relations, and that seemed like a positive thing in and of itself,” he said.

The Center for Public Integrity attempted to contact legislators it identified as having gone on the trips. Of the 34 lawmakers willing to comment, most spoke of their trips positively.

Many said their trips were packed with educational information and meetings with Turkish businessmen or officials and were not pleasure tours. While some, like Moxley in Kansas, defended Gulen’s followers, others said they didn’t know what to make of recent events in Turkey.

“That’s above my pay grade,” said Roger Katz, a Republican in the Maine Senate who went on one of the trips.

Some said they had no idea the sponsors of the trips were even part of the Gulen movement. Many of the trips occurred before the movement became an enemy of the Turkish state.

“The people I was associated with were devout Muslims and, I thought, the nicest people,” said Harry Kennedy, a former Democratic state senator in Missouri who went to Turkey in 2008. “But we really didn’t talk much about international politics.”

Lawmakers who have gone on the trips also have praised the experience as a way to dispel myths about Muslims in a post-9/11 world.

► Related: Turkish faith movement secretly funded 200 trips for lawmakers and staff

But not every trip participant walked away with the same conclusions. New Mexico state Sen. George Munoz said he left his trip early.

“I thought it was interesting to see another culture and government, but there were some things that were deeply wrong,” the Democrat said. “There’s a reason our country chose Christianity.”

State Sen. George Munoz, a Democrat from Gallup, N.M., said he left his Gulen-movement-sponsored trip to Turkey early because some things were “deeply wrong.” (Photo: New Mexico Legislature)

Gulen-movement groups are not the only ones paying for foreign travel of state lawmakers who have no power over foreign affairs. The government of Taiwan has sponsored trips for state lawmakers, and various Jewish nonprofits have taken state legislators to Israel.

But the Gulen movement’s efforts are extensive. For years, Gulen’s followers have been making friends in the United States by offering receptions, awards dinners and the subsidized trips — and not just for state lawmakers.

A 2015 USA TODAY investigation found the Gulen movement organized 200 trips for members of Congress and their staff.

One Gulen-movement member estimated that more than 7,000 movement-sponsored trips for North Americans occurred between 2003 and 2010, at an estimated cost of $17.5 million. The trips included mayors, university professors, journalists and other community leaders from across the United States.

The Center for Public Integrity’s review of lawmakers’ disclosures show that the Gulen-movement groups shelled out $1,000 to $7,047 per trip.

Some lawmakers’ spouses also came along for the subsidized journeys, which often included visits to major Turkish historical sites such as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a Greek Orthodox basilica that is now a museum; a cruise on the Bosporus, the strait in Istanbul that separates Europe from Asia; shopping; as well as tours of Gulen-linked institutions such as the daily newspaper Zaman or movement-run private schools.

► Related: Turkey hunts alleged coup plotter who was Clinton donor

Though some lawmakers paid for the cost of their flights to the country, Gulen-movement nonprofits that run on donations from Gulen’s followers frequently covered expenses such as hotels, meals and tours, experts said. In addition, Turkish followers of Gulen often donated money specifically for the trips and then hosted the travelers in their homes for dinners or joined them for tours.

While federal lawmakers’ trips are governed by strict rules and must be disclosed, state regulations and their interpretations vary. Many states that regulate lawmaker gifts and travel include exceptions for educational trips, and none ban subsidized travel for legislators outright, according to Ethan Wilson, an ethics expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

• Colorado bans gifts for lawmakers above $50, but the state’s ethics commission ruled that the Turkey trips fall under the definition of “fact-finding missions,” which are allowed.

• Some Kansas legislators reported their trips in financial disclosures, but at least two did not. They told the Center for Public Integrity that the state ethics commission told them it wasn’t required though the director of the commission said hotel stays worth more than $500 should be disclosed.

• North Dakota does not have any rules barring such trips, nor does it even require them to be disclosed.

Still, lawmakers should carefully scrutinize perks offered to them, said Mike Palmer, an ethics consultant who has worked on ethics codes for municipalities and government agencies. Certain groups like federal contracting officers have strict bans on gifts for good reason.

“There’s a balance there between receiving education and being lobbied,” Palmer said. “What one would ask is: ‘Why are they providing this? Why is this person taking me to lunch? What’s in it for them?’ ”

Education favors?

Several lawmakers who went on the trips said they never were asked for any kind of favors in exchange.

But critics of charter schools associated with the Gulen movement worry that the subsidized trips make influential friends for the movement’s burgeoning network of science and math academies in the U.S. — more than 160 in 26 states and the District of Columbia.

Sharon Higgins, a self-described “Gulen-watcher” who helped found Parents Across America to try to strengthen public schools, said she believes the trips are “brainwashing” the lawmakers and officials who go on them.

“A lot of times those people don’t know the dimension of the controversy surrounding the Gulen movement,” said the charter school critic who lives in California. “What concerns me is this one-sided presentation.”

Supporters of the movement often write off discomfort with Gulen-movement events or schools as Islamophobia. Gulen-linked charter schools generally are well regarded in education circles, and students at many of them consistently score well on standardized exams.

► Related: Interview: Reclusive Turkish cleric condemns coup attempt, denies involvement

But they’ve also faced investigations in at least seven states because, among other things, of accusations that they favor Turkish nationals when hiring teachers and contractors and spend taxpayer dollars extravagantly to do so.

• In Georgia, one audit found schools bypassing bidding rules to make purchases from companies with ties to Gulen followers.
• In Louisiana, the state shuttered another Gulen-linked school amid allegations of attempted bribery.
• In Utah, a school was shut down for financial mismanagement.

The international law firm that the Turkish government hired to investigate the Gulen network, which has offices in London and the District of Columbia, already has filed formal complaints  alleging financial improprieties about charter schools in several states. Robert Amsterdam, the lead lawyer, said he believes previous investigations into the schools proved fruitless because of the movement’s sway with local leaders.

Former GOP state Rep. Dennis Keschl of Belgrade, Maine, made two trips to Turkey with his wife and later wrote letters of support for two charter schools said to have Gulen ties. (Photo: Maine Lakes Resource Center)

“In reality, I can point you to lots of smoke, but no charges have been laid in the United States with respect to their activities,” Amsterdam said. “We think part of it is motivated by a huge effort by the Gulenists to influence political actors.”

Several lawmakers who went on trips to Turkey later supported Gulen-linked charter schools.

Former Maine state Rep. Dennis Keschl and his wife traveled to Turkey in both 2013 and 2014 with a Gulen-linked group, the Turkish Cultural Center Maine.

The Republican subsequently wrote letters of support to the state’s charter school oversight board for two schools that were applying to open in Maine and were said to have ties to Gulen. (Neither school was approved.)

He said a representative from the Turkish Cultural Center Maine asked him to support the schools.

“I’m a strong supporter of charter schools,” Keschl said. “In almost all of their charter schools they’ve established in the country, with a few exceptions, their students really are top students.”

Discord in Texas

Perhaps no state has seen the depths of this controversy more than Texas. The state is home to more than 40 charter schools with reported ties to the movement.

The Center for Public Integrity identified 10 state legislators who accepted subsidized trips to Turkey from Gulen-related groups, including Democratic state Rep. Alma Allen. She has served as the vice chairwoman of the House’s Public Education Committee and on the advisory board of Harmony Schools, a chain of the Gulen-linked charter schools that has sites in her Houston district.

Allen did not respond to requests for comment.

Gulen supporters founded the Harmony charter schools, experts and observers say, and like other Gulen schools they hire an unusual number of Turkish teachers and contractors.

Harmony spokeswoman Peggy England denied any connection to Gulen, saying 6% of its staff are on skilled-worker H-1B visas and that it follows federal and state contracting laws.

“We have absolutely no relationship with any religious or social or political movements or organizations. Period,” she said. “Our books are open and transparent.”

Likewise, the Texas Charter Schools Association, which represents Harmony, denied the schools have any direct ties to the cleric at the heart of the movement.

“We are not aware that he is a charter operator within the state,” said Christine Isett, the trade group’s director of communications. “Our experience is that Harmony public schools produce great results with kids and great outcomes. Oftentimes the kids that graduate from Harmony are the first in their families to go to college.”

Yet such denials baffle friends of the movement.

“When I went to Turkey, I was shown these schools, and they said, ‘We have schools in Texas,’ ” said Martin, the Rice professor.

► Related: Turkey again sends document to U.S. seeking cleric’s arrest

He said he urges his Gulen-movement friends to be open about their connection with the charter schools.

“You don’t have an organizational tie. I can accept that,” Martin said. “But to say you don’t have a tie hurts your credibility because people know there is a connection here.”

“It would look like a junket. I’m just worried about how it looks.”

State Rep. Ken Legler of Pasadena, Texas, in 2011

The Gulen-connected trips for lawmakers are allowed in Texas. The state technically banned lawmakers from traveling for pleasure at others’ expense decades ago, but it allows “fact-finding trips.”

Still, Texas politicians in 2011 expressed reluctance to go on the trips after The New York Times documented financial improprieties at Gulen-linked schools there and bloggers accused the schools of promoting Islam. (Gulen-movement schools frequently teach the Turkish language but the Center for Public Integrity found no evidence they teach religion.)

“It would look like a junket,” now-deceased Texas state Rep. Ken Legler, a Republican, told the Austin American-Statesman at the time. “I’m just worried about how it looks.”

Then in 2012, a conservative group lobbied for Texas to require charter school operators to be American citizens. A modified version requiring a majority of board members to be U.S. citizens eventually became law there, which England said did not affect Harmony schools because they were in compliance before and after it passed.

► Related: Closer look at empire of cleric accused in Turkey coup attempt

During a hearing about the bill, Allen came to the defense of the Harmony chain of schools linked to the Hizmet movement. As shown in the anti-Gulen documentary Killing Ed, she specifically cited her trips to Turkey, at least one of which was sponsored by a Gulen-movement nonprofit.

“Wonderful Turkey — I’ve been there twice,” she said. “It’s beautiful. You should go.”

Contributing: David Jordan, The Center for Public Integrity. The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in the nation’s capital. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter: @Publici.

Illinois House Resolution 0173

Then-Rep. Susana Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat who is now Illinois state comptroller, filed the above resolution commending Fethullah Gulen on March 9, 2011, in the Illinois House, and it was adopted the next day. She took at least one subsidized trip to Turkey.

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