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How the Turkish lobby influences American policy: Free vacations for the powerful

Friday, June 21, 2013  |   |  Tags:

A couple weeks ago, The Nation‘s Lee Fang published a piece asking why Washington wasn’t commenting more on the growing protests in Turkey. After all, the protests were receiving widespread attention in American media outlets. However, few elected officials even spoke on the matter. As Fang laid out, the Turkey lobby expends untold sums to woo American lawmakers:

Turkey maintains an active effort to fly lawmakers to visit the country. Though Congress banned foreign-funded travel in years past, many foreign entities set up nonprofit organizations to organize “Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act” (MECEA) trips for elected officials to legally visit foreign destinations on the nonprofit’s dime. Lawmakers and officials of both parties regularly attend events organized by Turkey’s government.  […]

The MECEA trips and congressional ceremonies have been organized by staffers from Turkey’s various lobbying firms, according to filing with the Department of Justice’s FARA website. Turkey’s government pays two former Democratic Congressmen, Dick Gephardt (through his corporate lobbying firm, the Gephardt Group) and Al Wynn (through his law firm, Dickstein Shapiro), to influence Washington. Others on the payroll include David Mercer, a prominent Democratic aide, a team of about twenty from the firm PR giant Fleischman-Hillard, 30 Point Strategies and the Caspian Group. Some of the MECEA-organizing nonprofits also retain influential lobbying consultants, like the firm Brown, Lloyd and James (known for previously representing Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad’s wife). […]

The ties between US corporations and the Turkish government are another potential reason lawmakers have been slow to show solidarity with the protesters. Business and diplomacy are on display at the American Turkish Council, one of the most influential Turkish nonprofits geared toward congressional outreach. The council is funded by the Turkish government’s investment agency and a number of corporations with economic interests in Turkey, including Lockheed Martin (makers of the F-35, which is partially assembled in Turkey), TUSKON (a Turkish business lobby group) and Chevron (which maintains major drillings interests in the Black Sea).

Fang’s article just scratches the surface. There is also a mass of activity on the state level. Back in 2012, Rick Brundrett exposed the fact that South Carolina lawmakers were being taken on Turkish vacations with “no agenda” policy-wise that would have benefitted the state:

Although South Carolina has a relatively small Turkish population and no major trade with Turkey, eight S.C. senators apparently thought it was important enough to go on a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to the Middle Eastern country last year.

The estimated individual $7,047 cost of the October trip was covered by a little-known nonprofit organization in South Carolina and unidentified sponsors in Turkey, according to statements of economic interests filed recently by most of the traveling senators with the S.C. Ethics Commission.

The getaway was the single-biggest gift in 2011 declared by members of either the Senate or House, according to The Nerve’s review of online S.C. Ethics Commission records.

And in Virginia:

Ingram and Marsh were among eight senators and delegates to partake in visits to Turkey underwritten by the nonprofit American Turkish Friendship Association. According to its website, the Fairfax-based group aims “to promote of understanding of American and Turkish cultures, and to foster integrity through cultural and educational activities.” The group spent $21,450 in Virginia, second only to Dominion in total amount of gifts.

And in Tennessee:

Nine state legislators — including two from Knoxville — have signed up for a trip later this month to Turkey and Azerbaijan that a Nashville television station says is financed by groups that have ties to a Muslim leader who operates a network of charter schools in the United States. […]

This year, in fact, Tennessee lawmakers were caught up in the Turkish protests during their free trip. The local press in Tennessee has, to its credit, called out lawmakers for these free trips which seem to have little if any real policy benefit for Tennessee.

Oh, and it wasn’t just Tennessee lawmakers.  Lawmakers from New Mexico also had their free Turkey trip interrupted by the protests as well (that trip was paid for the Azerbaijan government. Azerbaijan and Turkish groups often coordinate these trips together).

Meanwhile, in Texas:

For Texas legislators, one of the most coveted activities in recent years has been 10-day trips to Turkey, paid for in full or in part by various Turkish American organizations.

A dozen or so state officials, including several Central Texas legislators, have taken the trips in the past several years, and more have been invited this year.

And in Idaho:

[M]ore than a tenth of the Legislature has traveled to Turkey this year. It’s a regular Turkey Caucus. Do with that observation what you will. […]

The lawmakers may have left with a better appreciation of the value of education, Hill said, seeing its impact on Turkey’s thriving economy. That’s nice, but are we seriously at the stage where Idaho politicians have to travel halfway around the world to learn the value of schools?… [W]hen a group purchases access to politicians to “provide understanding,” that’s never going to be the stuff of best practices.

It’s not just American lawmakers that are aggressively courted by the Turkish lobby. American journalists are as well. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noted that he got a 12-day trip to Turkey:

Granted, Chris Hayes is an exceptional journalist who doesn’t necessarily let his coverage be  swayed by such trips, unlike others. Indeed, in 2012, he asked this very important question:

While there have been some decent articles about the influence of Gulen on America’s charter school system, the issue hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves (and one could argue that Hayes, with his MSNBC show, has the perfect platform to launch such an investigative piece). Without the press drawing attention to the issue of foreign influence in America’s school system, it’s not surprising that so many lawmakers in so many states are eagerly accepting free vacations to Turkey.

So next time you wonder why your local state senator or representative or your Member of Congress hasn’t spoken out against the brutal government crackdown in Turkey, ask them first whether they’ve been on the receiving end of an all-expenses paid vacation to that country. You may be surprised by the answer.


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