Ali İhsan Arslan, a close confidant of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a deputy from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), hired a former senior adviser to the Trump campaign, lobbyist Barry Bennett, US Department of Justice Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) records have revealed.
According to documents filed with FARA on Wednesday, Bennett says he will assist Arslan in his role as a member of parliament “to develop better relations with key policy makers and thinkers in Washington.” Bennett also says he will work with Arslan free of charge because he is “Arslan’s friend.”
Yet, despite the absence of a formal, paid contract between the two, Bennett seems to have disclosed his relationship with Arslan to meet the requirements of the US statute known as FARA. The Foreign Agent Registration Act requires certain individuals working as “agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities or other activities specified under the statute to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”
According to Bennett’s FARA filing, his activities on behalf of Arslan “may include communications with Members of Congress and Congressional staff, Executive Branch officials, the media, and with other individuals and organizations that could reference relations with the Republic of Turkey.”
FARA disclosure filed by Barry Bennett:FARA documents
Arslan, known as Mücahit (spelled Mujahid in English, meaning jihadist) in AKP circles, has been a close confident of Erdoğan since his time as the mayor of İstanbul. He is a businessman and one of the founding members of the AKP. Until his election to parliament in 2015, Arslan had no official titles but remained part of a core group that traveled almost everywhere with Erdoğan.
In a 2004 cable on then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman mentioned Mücahit Arslan’s name under the subtitle of corruption and said, “Charges that Erdogan amassed his fortune through kickbacks as mayor of Istanbul have never been proven but we now hear more and more from insiders that close advisors such as private secretary Hikmet Bulduk, Mucahit Arslan, and Cuneyd Zapsu are engaging in wholesale influence peddling.”
Bennett is a partner at Avenue Strategies, a lobbying firm he cofounded with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski shortly after the 2016 presidential election. According to FARA records, the firm’s client list has included the governments of Qatar and Zimbabwe. Other noteworthy clients include Venezuelan petroleum giant Citgo and Virginia-based tobacco company Altria.
Before serving as senior advisor to the Trump campaign, Bennett managed the presidential run of Ben Carson, now the US secretary of housing and urban development.
The lobbying registration just weeks before the US election has fueled speculation about a last-minute effort by the Erdoğan government to see the Trump administration take action on some of its priorities. These include avoiding potential sanctions, improving cooperation in Syria and pushing for the US to extradite exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s arch enemy.
Turkish President Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen inspired movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.
Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. Erdoğan intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity. Following the allegations, Gülen called on the Turkish government to allow for an international investigation.
As part of the crackdown Erdoğan dismissed some 150,000 public servants including members of the armed forces, police officers, teachers, doctors and academics by emergency decree-laws, detaining hundreds of thousands and seizing their assets.
Avenue Strategies and the Turkish Heritage Organization
This is not the first time Avenue Strategies’ relations with important Turkish figures have been revealed. In June 2019 Gönül Tol, director of the Turkey Program at Washington, D.C.,-based think tank the Middle East Institute, claimed in a tweet that THO had offered in an email to pay $350 to people who agreed to attend a conference at which Turkey’s justice minister, Abdülhamit Gül, would talk about the Turkish government’s judicial reform strategy. The email was sent by John Cpin, a partner in Avenue Strategies.
An email sent to Gönül Tol by John Cpin on behalf of THO as shared by Tol on Twitter:
In response to Tol’s claims, THO President Ali Çınar shared the image of an email by Cpin to Tol apologizing “for the misunderstanding” and claiming that “THO was not paying any honorarium.”
The exchange revealed that Avenue Strategies was working for THO, with or without an official contract.
THO is a D.C.-based pro-Erdoğan non-profit that, according to its website, “promotes discussion and dialogue around Turkey’s role in the international community and issues of importance in the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.” The sponsors of the organization include Turkish Airlines, which is owned by Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, and Turkish construction giants Kalyon and Kolin, two of the top winners of public tenders in Turkey during Erdoğan’s term in office. In fact the firms were awarded so many contracts that they made it into the World Bank’s top 10 biggest global winners of public tenders, according to a report.
Beyond the Turkish government, THO also has close ties with Erdoğan’s inner circle. Leaked emails published by Wikileaks in late 2017 show that THO was founded, with the involvement of Erdoğan’s son-in-law and Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak, who was at the time Turkey’s energy minister, as a way to “camouflage” the Turkish government’s lobbying activities in the US. The emails were stolen by a Turkish Marxist group called RedHack.
In the emails THO’s former president, Halil Danışmaz, details a roadmap to “circumvent tax and other impediments in the laws” by hiring journalists who could get access to “American political and bureaucratic circles,” including members of Congress. These journalists would then be paid to write and publish articles in American newspapers and news sites essentially advocating for Erdoğan’s agenda and developing opinion in legislative circles.
The extent of the services provided by Avenue Strategies to THO is unknown. But given the direct ties of THO to Erdoğan’s inner circle, the organization might have contracted Avenue Strategies to influence the Trump administration.
A report by Asbarez suggests that THO might in fact have also penetrated the Biden campaign. According to Ara Khachatourian’s report, Elvir Klempic, the former executive director of THO, was appointed national affinity and ethnic engagement director by the campaign of Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president.
THO, Ekim Alptekin and Russian ties
According to a Politico story, Dmitri “David” Zaikin, a Soviet-born former executive in Russian energy and mining companies, was also instrumental in the setting up of THO.
The organization got its start when Zaikin asked a Washington-based international political consultant named John Moreira to help set it up, Moreira told Politico. Zaikin has also had dealings with the government of Vladimir Putin, according to three people with direct knowledge of the activities.
Moreira told Politico he was paid to help manage the heritage organization but would not say by whom. He said he gave Zaikin weekly updates on the organization’s activities and that Zaikin visited Washington about every other month. On at least one occasion, a man named Ekim Alptekin met with communications consultants working for the Turkish Heritage Organization, Moreira said.
Alptekin is a pro-government Turkish businessman whose payments to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for research and lobbying work against the Gülen movement were central to a political controversy in the US. Alptekin was charged with hiring Michael Flynn as part of a secret, illegal US lobbying scheme on behalf of the Turkish government during and after the 2016 presidential campaign and is still at large and wanted by the FBI.
But three people with direct knowledge of the situation said it was more than just one meeting; Zaikin and Alptekin worked together to help coordinate pro-Turkish lobbying.
For his part Zaikin told Politico: “I introduced [the Turkish Heritage Organization] to a few companies who I believed were industry professionals in good standing. I was present at a few meetings.”
Zaikin did not sign checks or contracts — lobbying firms were hired through the Turkish Heritage Organization and another nonprofit called the Turkish Institute for Progress, according to lobbying disclosure records. Zaikin also asked Moreira to help set up the Turkish Institute for Progress, Moreira said.
Leaked emails of Berat Albayrak also appear to show Zaikin receiving reports of those lobbying activities.
Zaikin, 49, was born in Ukraine and grew up as a citizen of the Soviet Union. He said in emails that doctors excused him from the Soviet military draft because of an injury and that his family left the Soviet Union in 1990. He subsequently became a Canadian citizen and now lives in London.