The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned to the US judiciary in his quest to take down a chief foe’s alleged global network of charter schools.
Lawyers for the Turkish government have appealed to courts in Ohio and Illinois in recent weeks to issue subpoenas in Ankara’s quest to prove what it claims is a criminal conspiracy that impacts both the United States and Turkey. The requests target schools started by sympathizers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey blames for a failed coup in 2016.
“Turkish authorities are investigating a scheme through which criminally derived funds are being laundered from certain corporations and individuals throughout the United States, and then returned to Turkey for the continued financing of illicit activities in violation of Turkish laws,” Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kilic wrote in an Aug. 28 letter attached to the subpoena application. “We are optimistic that the assistance of the US judicial system in compelling the production of information relevant to these investigations will assist in bringing the responsible parties to justice in Turkey and the United States.”
The so-called Section 1782 applications target Concept Schools, a non-profit charter management company that oversees 30 charter schools serving 14,000 students — most of them low-income minorities — in seven midwestern states. These include the Chicago Math and Science Academy and the Horizon Science Academy-McKinley Park, both of which are named in the Illinois application.
A spokesman for Concept Schools denied any connection between the charter schools and the Gulen movement.
“Concept Schools has no affiliation with the Gulen movement or any national, political, social, or religious organization,” Christopher Murphy told Foreign Lobby Report in an emailed statement. “There appears to be a concerted effort by foreign actors to discredit Concept Schools and tarnish Concept’s reputation for what we can only believe are politically motivated foreign policy reasons.”
Erdogan’s critics say he’s using US courts to try to stifle dissent in the United States just as he has in Turkey.
“Turkish authorities are investigating a scheme through which criminally derived funds are being laundered from certain corporations and individuals throughout the United States, and then returned to Turkey for the continued financing of illicit activities in violation of Turkish laws.”Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kilic
Alp Aslandogan, the executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values, an umbrella group of US groups founded by sympathizers of Gulen and his Hizmet movement, said the schools operate under local US guidelines and curricula and are hardly the monolithic threat that Turkey makes them out to be.
“I think [Turkish officials] are very disturbed by the fact that the US does not buy into the [demonization] of the Hizmet movement,” Aslandogan said.
Turkey law firms Nixon Peabody and Calfee Halter & Griswold lay out a bevy of charges against the schools based on the findings of “a team of former federal prosecutors and investigators” as well as public whistle-blower complaints. These include allegations of insider trading between school officials and their associates, leading to inflated prices for municipal-bond funded construction contracts, school lunch programs and real estate purchases, as well as immigration and visa fraud.
Several US newspapers have published lengthy investigations that found evidence of self-dealing and illicit campaign contributions by charter schools connected to Gulen. And in 2014 the FBI raided several Concept Schools and related companies over allegations of improper relations with technology vendors.
“Concept Schools is cooperating with US authorities in connection with a civil investigation involving a federal technology program referred to as E-rate, which helps schools obtain affordable broadband and technology,” Murphy said. “No criminal charges have been filed in connection with this matter.”
“Those pushing this foreign agenda turn a blind eye to the needs of low-income parents who are fighting to get a good education for their children, 84% of whom are minority students,” he added. “Charter schools — like those Concept works with — empower those parents by providing better alternatives to local, traditional public schools.”
“There appears to be a concerted effort by foreign actors to discredit Concept Schools … for what we can only believe are politically motivated foreign policy reasons.”Concept Schools spokesman Christopher Murphy
A lawyer for the schools accused Turkey of pursuing an “ulterior motive” rather than seeking to find the truth about the schools’ functioning.
“The present application is one of several essentially identical petitions that the Turkish government has filed or, has announced it intends to file, in Ohio, Illinois and likely elsewhere to serve its political motives, rather than a legitimate investigatory purpose,” Nicholas Dertouzos of Nicola, Gudbranson and Cooper wrote in a response to the Ohio court.
Erdogan and Gulen turn on each other
Indeed, Turkey’s legal fight against the Gulen-linked schools is inseparable from domestic Turkish politics.
Gulen and Erdogan were allies sharing an Islamist political outlook until their falling out in the early 2010s as the Turkish president increasingly began to see him as a dangerous rival. Although Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, Erdogan accused him of being the mastermind of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.
Soon after the coup, Erdogan ordered the closure of Gulenist schools in Turkey and began a worldwide campaign to close down his network abroad. He has also called on the Donald Trump administration to extradite Gulen. That campaign eventually ensnared short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the government about his engagement with Turkish and Russian interests during the Trump campaign and presidential transition.
In the United States, lawyer Robert Amsterdam and his Amsterdam & Partners law firm have played an instrumental role in the schools campaign. Hired by Turkey in 2015 to help build a case against the Gulen schools at the state and federal level and in the media, the firm has since been paid $2.4 million, according to a review of lobbying filings by the Center for Responsive Politics. In September 2017, the firm released a book, Empire of Deceit, that formed the backbone of Turkey’s case and called on local, state and federal authorities to investigate the schools. The firm has also filed several legal complaints against Gulen-linked charter schools across the country.
Recently Turkey had appeared to take a step back from its anti-Gulen campaign as it dealt with bipartisan uproar over an arms deal with Russia and its intervention in northern Syria. The pause was reflected in Amsterdam’s lobbying, which showed no political activities and no payments in the six months through April 2019 (at the Amsterdam time attributed the non-payments to “bureaucratic inertia”).
The schools campaign has come roaring back, however.
Amsterdam reported $1.2 million in payments from Turkey in the 12 months through April, according to a Foreign Lobby Report of lobbying disclosures. More recently he’s gone after Horizon Science Academies, part of the Concept schools network, after they sued the Ohio Department of Education alleging that they were denied grant money to feed vulnerable students. In a June 24 letter to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, Amsterdam promoted his book while raising yet a new allegation: That the schools are abusing the COVID-19 recovery aid.
“We urge you to critically analyze the findings of our investigation,” he wrote, “and to use the information to investigate the Gulen charter school network in order to protect the interests of American schoolchildren, parents, teachers, and taxpayers.”
The Alliance for Shared Values’ Aslandogan said any objective evaluation will come out in the charter schools’ favor given their track record of success.
“If this is foreign influence,” he said, “we need more of it.”
Update: This story has been updated with comment from Concept Schools.