WASHINGTON — A Turkish religious movement accused of illegally financing congressional travel abroad may have also provided hundreds of thousands of dollars of improper campaign donations to congressional and presidential candidates during the past several years, a USA TODAY investigation has found.
USA TODAY has identified dozens of large campaign donations attributed to people with modest incomes, or from people who had little knowledge of to whom they had given, or from people who could not be located at all. All the donors appear to have ties to a Turkish religious movement named for its founder, Fethullah Gülen. USA TODAY reported last month that the movement has secretly funded more than 200 foreign trips for members of Congress and their staff.
In response to USA TODAY’s queries about suspicious donations she received on April 30, 2014, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. refunded $43,100 to the donors. “Out of an abundance of caution, the campaign has refunded the contributions in question,” said Ayotte campaign manager Jon Kohan. Ayotte also called on others who have received money from the same donors — including President Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton — to return that money as well.
Some of the 19 Turkish Americans donating to Ayotte that day, who all lived outside New Hampshire, seemed to know little about the first-term senator, who is a woman. “He’s a good guy. He’s doing good so far. … I know him,” said Iman Cesari, a 30-year-old Nassau County employee on New York’s Long Island, who gave Ayotte $1,200.
“I just liked what he said at that time and wanted to make a donation,” said Hayati Camlica, who owns a Long Island auto repair shop and donated $2,400 to Ayotte on the same day.
Five of the Turkish Americans who donated to Ayotte that day could not be located at all, and in some cases, neither could the employer listed in Federal Election Commission records. Others did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
The donors appear to have ties to Gülen’s worldwide moderate Islamic movement, which has been accused by the Turkish government of attempting a coup in that country. Turkish media reported that during Obama’s visit to Turkey this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his request that the United States extradite Gülen, who has lived in the Pennsylvania countryside for two decades.
Some of the donors were employed by Gülen-linked schools or non-profit organizations; others have shared Gülenist material on their social media accounts or have been reported as participants in Gülen-organized events.
Gülen-linked money has flowed into campaigns all over the country, both Republicans and Democrats, and much of it raises red flags. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, received nine $2,500 donations from out-of-state Turkish-Americans on Oct. 7, 2013. One of the donations is attributed to a teacher at a Gülen-linked charter school in Toledo, Ohio, who had never before made a federal campaign donation. State public records suggest the teacher, Akif Camizci, was earning $37,000 a year. Camizci could not be reached at the school.
Also donating to Cuellar that day was Bilal Eksili, vice president of the Turkish American Federation of Midwest in Mount Prospect, Ill. Eksili donated a total of $5,000 to federal campaigns that year, but the foundation reported to the IRS that his full-time salary was $31,592. Overall, FEC records show Eksili has donated $38,000 to political campaigns since 2010, though public records indicate he did not own a home. Eksili did not respond to attempts to reach him.
Eksili is now president of the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians in Houston. The Turquoise Council was a primary sponsor of a congressional trip to Azerbaijan in 2013 that House ethics investigators concluded was secretly and improperly financed by an Azeri oil company.
“We make sure that the donors are legal,” said Colin Strother, a Cuellar campaign spokesman. Campaign donations are vetted to make sure they comply with federal contribution limits, Strother said, but “we don’t ask them their annual income or what their spouse makes.” Like most campaigns, “the process we go through is to make sure that the contribution is on its face a legal contribution,” Strother said. “If we were to find out that it weren’t, we would return it.”
While campaigns cannot investigate every donation they receive, “getting multiple maxed-out contributions on the same day from an identifiable group of first-time political donors that the campaign doesn’t already know well is definitely a yellow light,” said election lawyer Joe Birkenstock. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong, but that’s generally the kind of fact pattern a compliance team should follow up on.”
More than two dozen other candidates and lawmakers across the political spectrum received Gülen-linked donations that appear questionable, including Clinton and Jeb Bush. The movement runs more than 100 charter schools and dozens of Turkish cultural centers and “intercultural dialogue” groups around the country. Employees move around among the schools and among the non-profit groups, so it is hard to keep track of who is working where at any given time.
This feature of the Gülen movement has been called “strategic ambiguity” by Joshua Hendrick, a professor at Loyola University Maryland, and it makes it impossible to trace the root source of funding for any Gülen activities.
Many teachers and administrators at the movement’s Harmony, Horizon and other charter schools have provided one-time $1,000 or $2,000 contributions, amounts that are usually associated with wealthier donors.
It is not clear that the donations have bought the Gülen movement any additional assistance from public officials. For instance, Ayotte wrote a letter congratulating organizers for establishing a Turkish Cultural Center in New Hampshire in 2013, but Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is challenging Ayotte for her Senate seat, also supported the effort, attending the ribbon cutting for that Gülen-affiliated center.
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