Will the Biden administration act against the pro-Erdoğan influence in U.S. politics?

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) under President Joe Biden could step up efforts to identify foreign agents working in the country, adding further scrutiny to groups advocating for Turkey.

In an exit interview with Politico on Feb. 4, the former head of DOJ’s Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) unit Brandon Van Grack predicted the agency would become more active in fulfilling its mission. 

“Probably you're dealing with a FARA unit that is more, better staffed, than it has been probably in my lifetime,” Van Grack told Politico. He added that he believes the new administration has “every intention to robustly enforce FARA”. 

Van Grack was succeeded by veteran counterintelligence prosecutor Jennifer Gellie. 

FARA is the U.S. government’s primary tool for enforcing foreign lobbying rules, which have traditionally been under-applied and difficult to prosecute. But since Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the problem has become harder to ignore. 

Turkey is remembered as a footnote in the Russia saga through the illegal lobbying activities of former President Donald Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Van Grack secured a plea deal over Flynn’s failure to register under FARA in exchange for avoiding other potential charges against him or his son, Michael Flynn Jr., for lobbying on behalf of Turkey. 

Flynn’s Turkish client, Ekim Alptekin, formerly head of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAIK), was indicted for serving as an illegal foreign agent of Ankara. Alptekin now resides in Turkey after being charged in 2018.

However, the Flynn episode is only the most blatantly illegal case of what Turkey’s lobbying operations in the U.S. look like. Known for its patronage of well-connected lobbyists during the Trump era, a patchwork of other groups have pushed Ankara’s messages across the U.S. 

Under FARA, the DOJ has generally opted to push firms and individuals for voluntary compliance with the law. But FBI agents and federal prosecutors have complained to the DOJ inspector general in the past about vagueness and weak enforcement encouraging non-compliance.

Under Van Grack, however, the DOJ FARA unit took a broader view of how the law could be interpreted. This, he said, led to higher rates of compliance, including from a wider array of actors, such as non-profits and law firms.  

And the DOJ has already acted against several groups working closely with Turkey.  

Last year, the state-funded Turkish Radio-Television Corporation (TRT) was pushed to register as a foreign agent after echoing positions taken by the Turkish government. TRT says it maintains an independent editorial stance, but the DOJ labelled the broadcasters parroting of government talking points as “political activity”, an example of how vague FARA standards can be used flexibly.

Imaad Zuberi, a wealthy donor, political operative and stated fan of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was similarly indicted for illegal lobbying activity that included work for Turkish clients and allies in the U.S.

Zuberi worked with the Turkish Embassy in Washington to kill a U.S. Congress resolution critical of Erdoğan ahead of the crucial 2015 election in Turkey. Zuberi also donated $900,000 towards Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and attended the ceremony with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu as his guest. Çavuşoğlu shared images taken at the event on social media, including a picture with Michael Flynn.

Zuberi was sentenced to 12 years in prison last week.  

Further links between Turkey and Trump were revealed last week, when the FBI opened an investigation into two non-profits aimed at galvanising African American support for the former president through cash handouts, Salon reported.

Based on statements from Rabia Kazan, a Turkish activist in the U.S., Trump surrogates Kareem Lanier and Darrell Scott solicited donations from wealthy businessmen in Turkey as part of their activities. 

The FBI has not publicly confirmed the investigation and it is unknown if Lanier or Scott are being investigated as foreign agents.

Other domestic groups have also come under scrutiny for links to Turkey. Ahval previously reported how TAIK, Alptekin’s old association, gradually worked to take greater control of its U.S. counterpart, the American-Turkish Council (ATC).

Under Alptekin, TAIK pushed the ATC towards signing a memorandum that was cautiously opposed by its leadership for risking violating FARA. But eventually, ATC, one of the most respected U.S.-Turkey business actors for nearly four decades, lost its autonomous status due to the overtly partisan steps taken by its leadership.

A source familiar with U.S.-Turkey business relations said Alptekin also reportedly pushed for donations to members of the U.S. Congress to defeat a bill recognising the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

After fleeing to Turkey, Alptekin was replaced by Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, a friend of the Trump family and staunch supporter of Erdoğan, who reportedly served as a backchannel to the Turkish Embassy following Trump’s 2016 victory. After Trump’s presidency ended, Yalçındağ suddenly felt compelled to reveal that he never met the former president in person during his term, an apparent attempt to reach out to the new Biden administration.

But perhaps the most complex example of Ankara’s influence is the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC).  

TASC bills itself as an educational and advocacy group for Turkish-Americans and a promoter of better relations between the U.S. and Turkey. But like TRT, it has been notable for channelling Turkish government views in its public statements and on its television network TASC-TV. 

TASC has also been involved in organising protests in support of Turkey, resulting in a number of notorious incidents. In July, vans carrying banners commemorating the failed 2016 coup attempt rode across New York City, Washington D.C and Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, where exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen lives. The Turkish government accuses Gülen of orchestrating the coup, and TASC co-chair Murat Güzel said the protests were aimed at informing the American public.  

Güzel, a self-identified “commercial diplomat”, is a known donor to the Democratic Party. But he has been connected to Zuberi through Federal Election Committee records that show a political donation he made to the Republican Party with Zuberi’s California home listed as the address.  

TASC’s board also has several direct connections with Turkey and President Erdogan.

The organisation’s listed headquarters is at the Turkish House in Washington D.C., a property owned by the Turkish government.

Halil Mutlu, a cousin of the Turkish President, previously served as head of the New York-based Türken Foundation, where he posed with former Vice President Mike Pence during Pence’s last term as governor of Indiana. 

Mutlu’s partner at TASC is Gunay Evinch, a lawyer at the law firm Saltzman & Evinch in Washington, who has been connected to Turkish interests in Washington D.C. for over three decades.

Evinch’s law firm was later retained by the Turkish Embassy after the May 2017 protests outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence during Erdoğan’s first visit in the Trump era. It went on to represent Erdoğan’s bodyguards, over clashes that saw several protestors injured.

Evinch himself was on the of the fracas, where he told a local news network that the anti- Erdoğan crowd had attacked the president’s supporters.

As of June 2020, Evinch and his firm are registered as foreign agents of Turkey. 

However, Justice Department guidelines produced during Van Grack’s tenure require that non-profits receiving foreign funding only register under FARA if the money is going towards the specific purposes of a foreign state or entity. 

According to the District of Columbia’s business registry, TASC is operated as a non-profit corporation which would require a letter certifying this status from the Internal Revenue Service. TASC does not have a publicly available report detailing their funding and it is impossible to know whether or not it has received money from Turkey or pro- Erdoğan government enterprises.

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