A high-stakes lobbying and public relations battle is being waged between the government of Turkey and a single man, Fethullah Gulen.
The country has targeted Gulen, a roughly 76-year-old Turkish-born religious leader living in self-exile in rural Pennsylvania, for more than two decades.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely to raise the topic of Gulen’s status when he visits President Trump at the White House on Tuesday. Erdogan blames Gulen for a failed coup last summer and wants him extradited to Turkey.
Both sides in the battle claim they are being outgunned.
Turkey, a NATO member country, has expansive resources and intelligence capabilities and spends millions of dollars on lobbying and consulting in the United States.
Gulen, meanwhile, has a sprawling network of charter schools and organizations around the world affiliated with a movement he launched known as Hizmet — which means “service” — that centers on interfaith dialogue, public service and promoting science, technology, engineering and math education.
The fight at one point even swept up former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had to retroactively register as a foreign agent for work he did last year for a private company that could have been beneficial to Turkey.
His firm, the Flynn Intel Group, was tasked with investigating Gulen and overseeing the creation of a documentary about the cleric. He published an op-ed in The Hill condemning Gulen, but the film was apparently never finished.
Gulen-connected organizations are also leaning on K Street for help.
Washington Strategy Group, a lobbying firm founded by the leader of a regional arm of the Turkic American Alliance, a Gulen-connected group, is among those hiring up. In the last few months, it has contracted with the Estopinan Group — launched by Art Estopinan, the former chief of staff to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) — and Gotham Government Relations.
This Washington Strategy Group is not affiliated with a firm founded by Joel Rubin, which has the same name.
Some of the groups supportive of Gulen are believed to have helped arrange trips to Turkey and nearby countries for lawmakers, including one visit to Azerbaijan in 2013 that became the subject of a congressional ethics probe. Gulenists — a term for those who subscribe to the Hizmet movement — are said to be prolific political donors.
Gulen, a former Erdogan ally, has been blamed for orchestrating a failed military coup last summer with the goal of undermining Erdogan, which forced the crackdown that ensued. Gulen condemned the coup attempt and denied involvement. Turkey wants the U.S. to hand Gulen over and has been sending alleged evidence of wrongdoing to the Justice Department.
The Turkish government has long claimed that followers of Gulen are infiltrating the government ranks in order to overthrow it, and one firm working on behalf of Turkey called the movement a “cult,” while also drawing comparisons to the mafia.
Those close to Gulen maintain that Gulen-affiliated organizations are peaceful.
“This is about values, it’s about projects and institutions; it is not about a person. Yes, we have friends all around the globe. … And in most of these places, they earn praise for their services to their community,” said Y. Alp Aslandogan, the executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values, a Gulen-connected umbrella organization that supports regional affiliates. Last year, the group hired the Podesta Group for both lobbying and public relations.
The network of entities inspired by or connected to Gulen is opaque and difficult to track, as many groups do not directly identify themselves as part of the movement.
Much of the lobbying on behalf of Gulen-connected groups appears to focus on the political environment in Turkey.
Brad Gerstman, a founding partner of Gotham Government Relations, said that his firm’s lobbying work on behalf of a Gulen-connected group is primarily focused on making the Trump administration aware of how Erdogan is wielding his influence around the world. His firm worked for the Trump Organization in New York for years and helped roll out Trump’s presidential campaign announcement.
Over the last year, Erdogan has taken heat from international human rights organizations for arresting his opponents and shuttering independent media outlets. Gulenists in other countries are being arrested at the direction of the Turkish leader.
When a controversial referendum last month granted Erdogan sweeping powers, Trump was the only world leader to call and congratulate him.
Erdogan’s visit to Washington on Tuesday follows on the heels of a trip from his justice minister, who reportedly pressed his U.S. counterpart, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE, to extradite Gulen.
The country has an army of U.S. firms working on its behalf and has spent more than $3.1 million on K Street services, including public relations and lobbying, according to disclosures filed to the Justice Department.
There are 14 firms registered with the Justice Department to work for the country, most of which are sub-contractors to two firms: Greenberg Traurig and Amsterdam & Partners.
The three firms working under Greenberg Traurig’s $1.7 million contract are the Daschle Group, founded by former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Capitol Counsel and LB International Solutions. Greenberg Traurig has both former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and former Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) on the account. These contracts do not mention Gulen.
London-based firm Amsterdam & Partners is investigating Gulen and affiliated groups for Turkey and filing lawsuits against charter schools in the United States.
Robert Amsterdam says that public records and whistleblowers show the charter schools — which receive hundreds of millions in public funding — are bilking taxpayers, committing fraud on a massive scale and abusing students.
Gulenists “have a different worldview than they share,” he said, including a belief in Sharia law. “They use the money they steal from U.S. schools to expend their criminal activities to other countries.”
He’s working on a book and has filed a lawsuit against Harmony Public Schools, the largest chain of charter schools in Texas, which some say were inspired by Gulen or the Hizmet movement.
Leaders of the schools reject claims that they are connected to Gulen in any way and note that previous state and federal investigations into the schools did not result in sanctions.
“The government of Turkey is spending millions of dollars on lobbyists and publicists. Just because Registered Foreign Agents keep repeating these allegations, doesn’t make them true,” said Soner Tarim, a co-founder and chief executive officer of Harmony Public Schools, according to The Washington Post. “No one disputes our success of a 98 percent graduation rate and 100 percent college acceptance rate. It is time to look at the facts, not reprint false accusations.”
The political fight has also turned into a battle for business, and those tied to Turkey have been caught up in the firestorm.
Burson-Marsteller last week registered with the Justice Department to perform public relations work for Turkey in a $1.1 million contract. But from 2012 to 2015, the firm had worked for the Alliance for Shared Values, the group tied to Gulen.
Aslandogan claims Turkey threatened Burson-Marsteller’s parent company, saying that the contract with the Gulen group might cause trouble for its operations in Turkey.
“Under pressure from their owner, they said they could not renew our agreement,” Aslandogan told The Hill in an interview prior to Burson’s disclosure of the registration.
Burson-Marsteller on Monday declined to comment when asked about the situation.
“Burson-Marsteller takes client confidentiality very seriously. As such, we do not disclose details about any client relationships, past or present,” a spokeswoman said in an email to The Hill.