Scores of state lawmakers took trips subsidized by controversial Turkish opposition movement

Gulen groups are connected to U.S. charter school network overseen by legislators

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Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen speaks to members of the media at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pa., in 2016. His Hizmet movement helped send at least 151 U.S. state legislators to Turkey, even though the Turkish government now calls him a terrorist.

Chris Post/AP

Just why exactly would 151 state legislators from places like Idaho and Texas accept subsidized junkets from a Turkish opposition group now blamed by that country’s government for an attempted coup last summer?

It’s puzzling that state legislators who rarely get involved in foreign policy matters have been courted with international trips.

It’s especially surprising for the invitations to come from a powerful religious movement that until recently ran media outlets and a bank before falling out with the government in Turkey, a pivotal U.S. ally that serves as the gateway to the Middle East. Though followers of the movement deny having supported the failed coup, Turkey has asked the United States to extradite its leader, Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Islamic cleric who lives in a compound not in Ankara or Istanbul but in the woods of Pennsylvania.

The Center for Public Integrity documented the extent of the trips and found that some state lawmakers who attended them later introduced resolutions supporting Gulen’s controversial Hizmet movement. And some have even supported charter schools that are part of a network from Washington, D.C., to California of roughly 160 taxpayer-funded schools run by friends of the movement.

While some familiar with the lawmakers’ trips frame them as innocuous learning experiences, the trips are meant to transform American community leaders into Gulen sympathizers, according to Joshua Hendrick, a sociologist at Loyola University and a leading expert on the movement.

“It most certainly has the impact of cultivating influence,” Hendrick said. “It is a political effort but it is framed as a grassroots mobilization of dialogue.”

‘Sympathetic to the cause’

The long parade of state legislators who have accepted the heavily subsidized trips from the Gulen movement includes some influential figures. The man known as Illinois’ most powerful state politician, Democratic Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, traveled four times to Turkey on trips sponsored by nonprofit groups associated with Gulen’s Hizmet — or “service” — movement.

In 2011, at least a tenth of Idaho’s state legislators toured the land of the Ottomans on the movement’s dime.

At least four Texas lawmakers who have served on legislative education committees went on the sponsored trips. The Lone Star state is home to the most Gulen-linked charter schools.

California has about a dozen of the schools, as do Florida and Ohio. Arizona, Illinois and Missouri are among the states that have them, as well.

The Center for Public Integrity used lawmakers’ annual disclosures and news reports to identify 151 state legislators from 29 states who toured Turkey between 2006 and 2015 thanks to more than two dozen nonprofits associated with the Gulen movement.

Among those who went on the trips were lawmakers who had rarely traveled overseas. Many had little knowledge of Gulen or Turkish politics. Few of their states have trade connections to Turkey.

But state legislators represent the political farm team of leaders who may someday play in the big leagues of Congress or beyond. Thom Tillis, for one, was first elected to the North Carolina statehouse in 2006 and went on a trip to Turkey with a Gulen movement group in 2011. Fast forward: The Republican is now a U.S. senator serving on the powerful Armed Services Committee, which oversees members of the U.S. military stationed in Turkey.

State lawmakers also shape education policy and hold the purse strings on state budgets, which fund charter schools.

“It’s effective public relations,” said William Martin, a Rice University sociologist who went on two sponsored trips. “That can affect their schools, it can affect the things they would like to do.”

The schools have denied connections to Gulen, but experts and even some friends of the movement call the links obvious. The charter schools are often founded and run by individuals with long ties to the Gulen movement, and they frequently hire Turkish teachers, sponsor their visas and move them between schools.  Many were set up with the help of nonprofits tied to the movement.

Gulen supporters say the trips for lawmakers promoted intercultural dialogue, a key component of Gulen's teaching. The former imam preaches a unique brand of Islamic mysticism paired with Turkish nationalism and respect for modern science.

“We wanted to act as a kind of a bridge” between Americans and Turks, said Atilla Kahveci, vice president of the California-based Pacifica Institute, a Gulen-movement group that has organized lawmaker trips. “We didn't have any kind of, from our point of view, ulterior agenda, no matter how it seems from outside.”

But other experts think the trips have political motivations.

“It’s like any other lobbying or political operation,” said James Jeffrey, who served as ambassador to Turkey under President George W. Bush and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “They’re doing this to advance their cause.”

American sympathizers have stuck up for Gulen and his followers. Since 2011, state lawmakers in 23 states have introduced at least 54 resolutions honoring Turkey or Turkish Americans, some of which specifically praised Gulen or Gulen-movement organizations, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from Quorum, a legislative tracking service.

For example, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2011 recognizing Gulen for his “inspirational contributions to the promotion of global peace and understanding.” A Gulen-movement group sponsored at least 32 trips to Turkey for Illinois state lawmakers between 2008 and 2012, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

In Kansas, former state Rep. Tom Moxley, a Republican who went on a subsidized trip to Turkey in 2011, sponsored a resolution the following year that praised Turkey’s diversity and called for the creation of a Kansan-Turkish Friendship Network.

“I’m more sympathetic to the cause, the belief system of this group of Muslims, versus the ones that are in power in Turkey today,” he said. “We’re watching a dictator take over at a time when the American government can least afford to lose them as a friend.”

A movement centered in the Poconos

Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s most wanted man, lives tucked in the green mountains of the Poconos, a Pennsylvania tourism spot better known for its honeymoon suites with heart-shaped tubs than as an incubator for international insurrection.

Gulen, now in his 70s, began preaching in Turkey by the early 1960s and quickly drew followers to his messages of devotion to Islam paired with success in the modern world.

He moved to the United States in 1999, ostensibly for medical treatment, though he left just before the secularist regime ruling at the time accused him of threatening to overthrow the government. Gulen later obtained a U.S. green card, on the grounds that he had special abilities in the field of education.

Gulen’s movement in Turkey continued to grow, aligning itself with the conservative AKP party that now rules the country.

His followers established dormitories and schools in Turkey and elsewhere, as well as a network of nonprofit groups and foundations, including those in the United States that sponsor lawmakers’ trips, such as the Pacifica Institute and the American Turkish Friendship Association.

The nonprofits frequently share open allegiance to Gulen’s Hizmet movement, staff or other ties, according to Hendrick, the Loyola sociologist who mapped the connections between the groups in his research. Hendrick calls their informal connections to each other and Gulen part of the movement’s “strategic ambiguity,” which makes it more difficult for outsiders to assess the movement’s size and power.

But tensions in Turkey flared in 2013, and the AKP blamed its former political allies for the attempted coup in July 2016.

Though Gulen and his followers have denied responsibility for the recent coup attempt, the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cracked down on the Gulen movement, arresting 40,000 people and firing more than 100,000 soldiers, teachers and civil servants. Erdogan has also moved to silence dissenters and has jailed more than 100 journalists.

Today, Turkish leaders call Gulen a terrorist.

Turkey has also hired Amsterdam and Partners LLP, an international law firm that specializes in “political advocacy and cross-border disputes,” to pursue investigations into U.S. schools connected to the movement. The Turkish embassy did not return requests for comment.

Gulen was not available for an interview, according to the Alliance for Shared Values, a Gulen-movement umbrella group based in New York that handles his media requests.

“We hope that Americans see that he is a peaceful man who has been wrongly accused by an autocratic Turkish president,” said Mustafa Akpinar, CEO of the Rumi Forum, a Gulen-movement nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “We are confident in the rule of law in the United States and expect due process for Turkey’s misguided extradition request.”

All this has put the United States in a tricky position. U.S. officials have offered to help Turkey investigate the attempted coup, while simultaneously warning its ally to live up to “democratic principles” in dealing with suspects.

Though the U.S. has not formally said who was to blame for the coup, two U.S. ambassadors to the country, including current ambassador John Bass, have made the connection to Gulen. Bass in a television interview last August referenced “the apparent involvement of a large number” of Gulen’s followers in the attempted takeover.

Experts say even if this is true, it remains possible that Gulen himself and his American followers were not directly involved in the failed takeover.

In September, after Turkey asked the U.S. to extradite Gulen back to Turkey, the Obama administration promised to consider it but did not move quickly.

Experts are uncertain where the new administration stands. Former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President Trump's national security adviser, has called Gulen “shady” and his schools a “scam.”

State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said the agency had no update on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Turkey trips for state legislators have dried up amid the current political upheaval.

Fact-finding mission or junket?

Some lawmakers are bewildered that the groups that paid for their trips are now swept up in Turkey’s current political turmoil.

“I can’t imagine what they would have wanted out of the North Dakota state Legislature,” said former North Dakota state Rep. Ben Hanson, a Democrat who went on a trip sponsored by a Gulen group in 2013 with six other lawmakers from his state. North Dakota does not currently allow charter schools and has few ties to the Middle East.

“It seemed like their group was trying to educate people and trying to bridge relations, and that seemed like a positive thing in and of itself,” he added.

The Center for Public Integrity attempted to contact the legislators it identified as having gone on the trips. Of the 34 lawmakers willing to comment, most spoke of their trips positively. Many said their trips were packed with educational information and meetings with Turkish businessmen or officials and were not pleasure tours. While some, like Moxley in Kansas, defended Gulen’s followers, others said they didn’t know what to make of recent events in Turkey.

“That’s above my pay grade,” said Roger Katz, a Republican in the Maine Senate who traveled to Turkey.

Some said they had no idea the sponsors of the trips were even part of the Gulen movement. To be sure, many of the trips occurred before the movement became an enemy of the Turkish state.

“The people I was associated with were devout Muslims and, I thought, the nicest people,” said Harry Kennedy, a former Democratic state senator in Missouri who went to Turkey in 2008. “But we really didn’t talk much about international politics.”

Lawmakers who have gone on the trips also have praised the experience as a way to dispel myths about Muslims in a post-9/11 world. But not every trip participant walked away with the same conclusions. New Mexico state Sen. George Munoz said he left his trip early.

“I thought it was interesting to see another culture and government, but there were some things that were deeply wrong," the Democrat said. "There’s a reason our country chose Christianity.”

Gulen-movement groups are not the only ones paying for foreign travel by state lawmakers who have no power over foreign affairs. The government of Taiwan has sponsored trips for state lawmakers, and various Jewish nonprofits have taken state legislators to Israel.

But the Gulen movement’s efforts are extensive. For years, Gulen’s followers have been making friends in the United States by offering receptions, awards dinners and the subsidized trips — and not just for state lawmakers.

A 2015 USA Today investigation found the Gulen movement organized 200 trips for members of Congress and their staff.

One Gulen movement member estimated that more than 7,000 Gulen-movement-sponsored trips for North Americans occurred between 2003 and 2010, at an estimated cost of $17.5 million. The trips included mayors, university professors, journalists and other community leaders from across the United States.

The Center for Public Integrity’s review of lawmakers’ disclosures show that the Gulen-movement groups shelled out between $1,000 and $7,047 per trip.

Some lawmakers' spouses also came along for the subsidized journeys, which often included visits to major Turkish historical sites such as the Hagia Sophia, a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait, shopping, as well as tours of Gulen-linked institutions such as Zaman, a daily newspaper, or private schools run by the movement.

Though some lawmakers paid for the cost of their flights to the country, expenses such as hotels, meals and tours were frequently covered by Gulen-movement nonprofits, which run on generous donations from Gulen’s followers, experts said. In addition, local Turkish followers of Gulen often donated funds specifically for the trips and then hosted the travelers in their homes for dinners or joined them for tours.

While federal lawmakers’ trips are governed by strict rules and must be disclosed, state regulations and their interpretations vary. Many states that regulate lawmaker gifts and travel include exceptions for educational trips, and none ban subsidized travel for legislators outright, according to Ethan Wilson, an ethics expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For example, Colorado bans gifts for lawmakers above $50, but the state’s ethics commission ruled that the Turkey trips fall under the definition of “fact-finding missions,” which are allowed.

And though some Kansas legislators reported their trips in financial disclosures, at least two did not. They told the Center for Public Integrity that the state ethics commission told them it wasn’t required, though the director of the commission said hotel stays worth more than $500 should be disclosed.

North Dakota does not have any rules barring such trips, nor does it even require them to be disclosed.

Still, lawmakers should scrutinize perks offered to them carefully, said Mike Palmer, an ethics consultant who has worked on ethics codes for municipalities and government agencies. Certain groups like federal contracting officers have strict bans on gifts for good reason, he said.

“There’s a balance there between receiving education and being lobbied,” Palmer said. “What one would ask is: ‘Why are they providing this? Why is this person taking me to lunch? What’s in it for them?’”

Education favors?

Several lawmakers who went on the trips said they were never asked for any kind of favors in exchange.

But critics of charter schools associated with the Gulen movement worry the subsidized trips make influential friends for the movement’s burgeoning network of science and math academies in the U.S. — more than 160 in 26 states and the District of Columbia.

Sharon Higgins, a self-described “Gulen-watcher” who helped found Parents Across America that tries to strengthen public schools, said she believes the trips are “brainwashing” the lawmakers and officials who go on them.

“A lot of times those people don’t know the dimension of the controversy surrounding the Gulen movement,” said the charter school critic who lives in California. “That’s what concerns me is this one-sided presentation.”

Supporters of the movement often write off discomfort with Gulen-movement events or schools as Islamophobia. Such Gulen-linked charter schools are generally well-regarded in education circles, and students at many of them consistently score well on standardized exams.

But they've also faced investigations in at least seven states over, among other things, accusations that they favor Turkish nationals when hiring teachers and contractors and spend taxpayer dollars extravagantly to do so. One audit in Georgia found schools bypassing bidding rules to make purchases from companies with ties to Gulen followers. A school in Utah was shut down for financial mismanagement. The state of Louisiana shuttered another Gulen-linked school amid allegations of attempted bribery.

The international law firm hired by the Turkish government to investigate the Gulen network, which has offices in London and Washington, D.C., has already filed formal complaints about charter schools in several states alleging financial improprieties. Robert Amsterdam, the lead attorney, said he believes previous investigations into the schools proved fruitless because of the movement's sway with local leaders.

“In reality, I can point you to lots of smoke, but no charges have been laid in the United States with respect to their activities,” Amsterdam said. “We think part of it is motivated by a huge effort by the Gulenists to influence political actors.”

Several lawmakers who went on trips to Turkey have later supported Gulen-linked charter schools.

Former Maine state Rep. Dennis Keschl and his wife traveled to Turkey in both 2013 and 2014 with a Gulen-linked group, the Turkish Cultural Center Maine. The Republican subsequently wrote letters of support to the state’s charter school oversight board for two schools that were applying to open in Maine and were said to have ties to Gulen. (Neither school was approved.)

He said a representative from the Turkish Cultural Center Maine asked him to support the schools.

“I’m a strong supporter of charter schools,” Keschl said. “In almost all of their charter schools they’ve established in the country, with a few exceptions, their students really are top students.”

Discord in Texas

Perhaps no state has seen the depths of this controversy more than Texas. The state is home to more than 40 charter schools with reported ties to the movement. 

And the Center for Public Integrity identified 10 state legislators who accepted subsidized trips to Turkey from Gulen-related groups, including Democratic state Rep. Alma Allen. She has served as the vice chair of the House’s Public Education Committee and on the advisory board of Harmony Schools, a chain of the Gulen-linked charter schools that has sites in her Houston district.

Allen did not respond to requests for comment.

Experts and observers say the Harmony charter schools were founded by Gulen supporters and, like other Gulen schools, hire an unusual number of Turkish teachers and contractors.

Harmony spokeswoman Peggy England denied any connection to Gulen, saying only 6 percent of its staff are on skilled-worker H-1B visas and that it follows federal and state contracting laws.

“We have absolutely no relationship with any religious or social or political movements or organizations. Period,” she said. “Our books are open and transparent.”

Likewise, the Texas Charter Schools Association, which represents Harmony, denied the schools have any direct ties to the cleric at the heart of the movement. “We are not aware that he is a charter operator within the state,” said Christine Isett, the trade group’s director of communications. “Our experience is that Harmony public schools produce great results with kids and great outcomes. Oftentimes the kids that graduate from Harmony are the first in their families to go to college.”

Yet such denials baffle even friends of the movement.

“When I went to Turkey I was shown these schools, and they said, 'We have schools in Texas,'” said Martin, the Rice professor.

He said he urges his Gulen-movement friends to be open about their connection with the charter schools. “You don’t have an organizational tie, I can accept that, but to say you don’t have a tie hurts your credibility because people know there is a connection here.”

The Gulen-connected trips for lawmakers are allowed in Texas. The state technically banned lawmakers from traveling for pleasure at others’ expense decades ago, but it allows “fact-finding trips.”

Still, Texas politicians in 2011 expressed reluctance to go on the trips after The New York Times documented financial improprieties at Gulen-linked schools there and bloggers accused the schools of promoting Islam. (Gulen-movement schools frequently teach the Turkish language but the Center for Public Integrity found no evidence they teach religion.)

“It would look like a junket,” now deceased Texas state Rep. Ken Legler, a Republican, told the Austin American-Statesman at the time. "I'm just worried about how it looks."

Then in 2012, a conservative group lobbied for Texas to require charter school operators to be American citizens. A modified version requiring a majority of board members to be U.S. citizens eventually became law there, which England said did not affect Harmony schools because they were in compliance before and after it passed.  

During a hearing about the bill, Allen came to the defense of the Harmony chain of schools linked to the Hizmet movement. As shown in the anti-Gulen documentary Killing Ed, she specifically cited her trips to Turkey, at least one of which was sponsored by a Gulen-movement nonprofit.

“Wonderful Turkey — I’ve been there twice,” she said. “It’s beautiful. You should go.” 

David Jordan contributed to this story.

A version of this story was co-published by 
USA Today.

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