Ethics concerns regarding public officials' Gulenist Turkey trips
by C.A.S.I.L.I.P.S. - Citizens Against Special Interest Lobbying in Public Schools
Every year, mayors, state legislators, sheriffs and other public officials are invited on Gulenist Turkey trips. Our page on "Winning over Texas politicians" gives some examples of how Gulenists got a return on this investment. These public officials help legitimize the Gulenists, often by later appearing at their events, or by helping to pass resolutions or presenting certificates that mention either Gulen himself or Gulenist organizations favorably. This sort of endorsement has proven very effective, as it is used as a defense, for example, whenever objections to the Gulen charter schools are raised.
Some Turkey trips have raised ethics concerns, and a sampling is given below. Mostly, though, they have stayed under the radar, partly because the purpose is ambiguous - in fact, malleable. Sometimes they are said to be "educational," sometimes about meeting professional counterparts in Turkey to exchange ideas, sometimes about promoting peace and dialog, and sometimes they are presented as opportunities to promote trade or business ties. There can be no doubt that the participants enjoy the touristic aspect, yet this is always downplayed.
It is also claimed that the trips are not about lobbying. Yet several of the local sponsoring organizations, such as the Turquoise Council, are most definitely engaged in political lobbying, not only by themselves, but also as part of the Turkic American Alliance. In Texas, State Resolution 85, passed in January 2011, was proposed by legislators who had been on Turkey trips. Lobbying is defined as trying to influence the passage of legislation that benefits a special interest group, and there can be no doubt that the Gulenist seduction of legislators that led to the passage of State Resolution 85 fits that definition. Yet it seems that not one Gulenist non-profit in the US, not even the Rumi Forum in Washington DC, checks the "yes" box for the question "Does the organization engage in lobbying activities?" on their IRS Form 990.
California - Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry
The Newport Beach newspaper The Daily Pilot ran a story on April 4, 2010 entitled "Newport mayor defends free trip to Turkey: Irvine-based nonprofit invited him to 11-day trip last year to help foster Muslim-American dialogue, he says."
The article states that it was the Pacifica Institute which invited Curry and paid for his trip, with reported value of $3,400. The Pacifica Institute is a Gulenist organization.
From the article: "Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry on Saturday defended his decision to accept a complimentary $3,400 trip to Turkey last year, saying he doesn’t believe it stands in the way of his job. 'Turkish national issues do not come before the City Council,' he said. 'The city of Newport Beach does not have a foreign-policy agenda.'"
While it may be true that Turkish national issues do not usually make the agenda of the city of Newport Beach, issues concerning the Pacifica Institute do. Public officials in southern Callifornia might very well end up playing a role in the approval of new Gulen charter schools, for example.
It did not take Keith Curry long to return the favor. Turkish news outlets reported that on May 31, 2010, Keith Curry gave a speech at the Anatolia Cultures & Food Festival, an event organized by the Pacifica Institute. It was also reported that Curry presented the Pacifica Institute with a certificate of appreciation at this event.
More from the article: "Curry reported the 11-day trip as part of $5,400 in gifts he received in 2009 on financial disclosure forms required by the state. .... state law places a cap of $420 on the value of gifts politicians or public figures may receive. But there’s no cap on the total value of the overall gifts one may receive. Although the $3,400 for the trip to Turkey exceeds the $420 cap, Curry said there’s an exception for educational travel overseas when it is sponsored by a nonprofit."
It is highly questionable whether this trip to Turkey is legitimately characterized as "educational." Gulenist trips involve promoting the Gulen Movement, by taking participants to sites of Gulenist significance such as their media outlet offices, or their schools and hospitals. Participants are also invited into private homes, where they engage in conversation. The Turkish hosts are, however, always Gulenist, and the conversations are therefore designed to subtly advance the Gulenist agenda. These trips isolate the participants completely from the sizable elements of Turkish society that have views very different from Gulenists. They have the potential to transform US public officials from being merely uninformed about Turkey to being misinformed.
Colorado State Representative Cherylin Peniston
On May 19, 2009 the Denver Post reported on a Turkey trip of Colorado State Legislator Cherylin Peniston. "Peniston and several other lawmakers have been invited on the trip by the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation. Peniston would have to pay airfare for her and her husband, but the foundation would pick up the rest of the tab." The article noted that the watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch took issue with the decision of Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission that Peniston's trip to Turkey did not violate Colorado law.
The law was apparently circumvented by arguing that the trip constituted a gift to the state of Colorado rather than to Peniston herself. From the article: "Taylor [of Colorado Ethics Watch] said the commission's definition of what a "gift to the state" constitutes is far too broad. Peniston disagreed, saying the trip would help her work as a lawmaker. She said she hopes to meet with elected officials in Turkey during the trip and gain perspective on alternate solutions to problems facing lawmakers across the globe."
This argument does not hold up well when considered against the standard itinerary of Gulenist Turkey trips, which involve sightseeing and visits to Gulen schools and organizations. It is doubtful that Peniston spent much time on the trip discussing issues facing lawmakers.
Colorado Ethics Watch proceeded to sue the State of Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, as reported by the Colorado Independent on May 20, 2009. The Colorado Statesman also reported on this lawsuit on May 22, 2009, noting that other questions surrounded the Commission.
On July 1, 2010, the State of Colorado Independent Ethics Commission issued an Advisory Opinion stating that "It would be a violation of Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution for an employee of the Colorado Department of Education to accept travel expenses from the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation, a non-profit entity that receives more than 5% of its funding from for-profit sources under the circumstances described in the request."
Note that the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation is Gulenist. It has ties to Beehive Science and Technology Academy, a Gulen charter school in Salt Lake City. In early 2011 it changed its name, and is now a branch of the Pacifica Institute.
Florida - Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford, State Representative Jennifer Carroll
Northeast Florida's Folio Weekly magazine ran an article on May 11, 2010 regarding the Gulenist Turkey trips of Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford and State Representative Jennifer Carroll.
"As the city’s top cop, Sheriff John Rutherford personifies law and order. He has to live by the rules, ......That’s why it’s surprising that Rutherford and his wife, Patricia, accepted the gift of international travel from the Amity Turkish Cultural Center last May. The 10-day trip to Turkey wasn’t necessarily inappropriate, in and of itself. But all elected officials in Florida — and some appointed ones — are required to report any gift valued at more than $100 to the state Commission on Ethics. Neither Rutherford nor state Rep. Jennifer Carroll (R-Green Cove Springs), who also went on the trip, reported the gift.
"Asked about the failure to report, both Carroll and Rutherford said it was unnecessary. In an e-mail, Carroll explained that the trip wasn’t a gift, but a cultural exchange, 'a structured program where the hosts were in charge of the total program.'"
"Rutherford and Carroll were part of a group of seven influential Jacksonville leaders the Amity Center invited to Turkey. The idea behind the trip, says Center Director Akif Aydin, is to bring together people of different backgrounds to experience the commonality of other cultures by sharing food and fellowship...."
The article notes that everything besides the airfare - meals, hotel stays, tourist admission fees, etc - was paid for by the trip sponsors. This appears to be typical for these trips. (It is also typical that spouses are invited along.)
"Since the Amity Turkish Cultural Center doesn’t lobby the city or do business with the city, the trip wasn’t prohibited under state guidelines for elected officials, which prohibit accepting a gift valued at more than $100 from a lobbyist."
Again, Gulenist organizations do engage in lobbying. The Amity Turkish Cultural Center, which is Gulenist, may deny any connection to such lobbying, but when issues of interest to Gulenists come before these public officials, their memories of a Turkey trip will no doubt influence their actions.
Kansas - State Legislators
Kansas Watchdog published an article on May 11, 2010 entitled "Ethics: Legislators cannot pay for Turkey trips with campaign funds"
"The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission in a special teleconference meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon ruled that Kansas legislators could not use their campaign accounts to pay a $1300 portion for a trip to Turkey organized by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians.
"The Commission could not find a connection between the trip, which was largely for site [sic] seeing, and a legislator’s duties as an elected official."
Louisiana - Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden
On April 4, 2010 The Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, reported on the Turkey trip of Mayor Kip Holden, which was sponsored by the Gulenist Atlas Foundation.
"Ethics Administrator Kathleen Allen .... said a public official is expected to report exact charges to a credit card, showing details of how the money was spent. The law also requires details of any expenditures a third party makes on a candidate’s behalf, she said. // The cost of Holden’s trip to Turkey in June, except for an upgrade in his airfare to business class, was covered by the Atlas Foundation, which sponsored the trip, organizers said."
The Advocate's article went on to state that the Louisiana Ethics Commission had asked Holden to amend his campaign finance report to include more details about exactly how his campaign funds were used on his trips, and that Holden was unwilling to give further information to journalists.
The article also discussed the purported purpose of Holden's trip:
"Burak Aksoylu, secretary of the Atlas Foundation, said the group was formed in 2002 in New Orleans to promote relations between Turkey and the U.S. — including trade, cultural and educational exchanges. The Atlas Foundation tries to lead a group of clergy, educators and community leaders to Turkey every year, he said.
"Holden signed a “sister-city” agreement with the city of Malatya, the world’s largest supplier of apricots, while on the trip. He has said he wants to make Baton Rouge a major distribution point for apricots and other Turkish products.
It is interesting to compare Aksoylu's statements regarding the business component of the mission of the Atlas Foundation with the following statement which appears on the Foundation's website:
"Atlas Foundation affirms such universal values as peace, love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion as common points between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths. What unites us is greater than what separates, and belief in the oneness of God is the unity of religion. Through dialogue we may be able to rediscover those common ties that unite us in faith..."
-Catherine Eustis, President of Atlas Foundation
The Foundation's website presents Atlas as an interfaith organization, and makes no mention of any mission to promote trade or business exchanges.
Indeed, in comparing the justifications that various public officials give for their Turkey trips, it seems that the purpose of these trips is conveniently tailored as necessary for each individual to circumvent any ethics concerns. What is missing in every newspaper article on these trips is the recognition of the true underlying dynamic behind them: public officials and their spouses are given a holiday in Turkey, in exchange for promoting Gulenist interests.