Murat Kurum, Turkey’s minister for environment and urban planning since 2018, was detained in major graft and kickback schemes in the past and ran corrupt business activities for the family of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a Nordic Monitor investigation has found.
Kurum used to be a government employee in a low-level position in Ankara, quickly rose to a position of power and influence, becoming head of a large real estate firm in 2009 and then a minister in 2018, in great part due to the personal ties he cultivated with the family of President Erdoğan, especially with his son Bilal Erdoğan and son-in-law Berat Albayrak.
His illegal business schemes, apparently run on behalf of the Erdoğan family, appeared on the radar of investigators in September 2012 when police received a tip on construction mogul Ali Ağaoğlu, who was accused of purchasing public properties cheaply, making a huge profit by securing zoning and building code changes by bribing government officials.
The anonymous informant noted that when confronted with possible exposure of irregularities in his business dealings and the risk criminal and administrative penalties, Ağaoğlu turned to Abdullah Oğuz Bayraktar, the son of then-Minister for Environment and Urban Planning Erdoğan Bayrakar, and Sadık Soylu, advisor to minister Bayraktar, to cover up his illegal schemes.
The police, under orders from the investigating prosecutor, launched a probe of the allegations and discovered that the scheme was much larger that what was described in the tip and expanded the investigation by securing wiretap authorizations for the suspects. At the end of a months-long confidential probe, the public prosecutor identified Kurum as a major player in kickbacks, graft involving the sale of public property, urban transformation projects and zoning changes that favored people close to the government.
Wiretaps revealed how Murat Kurum was involved in an organized crime syndicate:Murat_Kurum_wiretaps
According to the 32-page summary of proceedings obtained by Nordic Monitor, Kurum was part of an organized crime syndicate that obtained special favors from government officials who abused their authority in illegal business dealings, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. The syndicate was operating in close coordination with officials at the Ministry for Environment and Urban Planning.
Kurum first started to pursue his dirty dealings when he was selected in 2006 by the Erdoğan family as head of a special section in Istanbul of the state-owned Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ). The government empowered him with special privileges, changed the regulations in urban development projects and made him a key person in deciding how Istanbul’s urban transformation would be managed.
Three years later, he was promoted to president of real estate and property development firm Emlak Konut Real Estate Investment Partnership (GYO), partly owned by TOKİ and controlled by Erdoğan’s office at the Prime Ministry.
The case file against Kurum indicated that the crime syndicate was run by Abdullah Oğuz Bayraktar, the minister’s son. The prosecutor charged 22 suspects including Kurum with forming a criminal gang and engaging in corruption and malpractice and obtained warrants for their detention. The prosecutor alleged that the crime syndicate secured changes in construction planning for companies that were awarded building projects from TOKİ and fixed problems when firms faced difficulties with preservation boards in provinces.
Kurum, acting under orders from the minister, pressured construction companies that did business with Emlak Konut and the government’s housing firm TOKİ to redirect some contracts to firms he and his associates had acquired. He and others were also involved in resolving zoning problems faced by prominent businessmen in their major construction projects in exchange for bribes.
According to the investigation file, municipalities, which are responsible for issuing permits and amending zoning regulations, deliberately did not issue these permits to construction companies for three months. In line with official procedure, requests for construction permits were then sent to the Environment and Urban Planning Ministry, where they were approved discreetly under the name of “project area” or “urban design project.”
Kurum and his associates were bribing bureaucrats to ensure that some plots of land that hosted historic buildings, environmentally protected zones or green spaces were opened up to construction. It was also claimed the suspects were causing the state financial loss by declaring false amounts for the maintenance of protected public properties in construction zones.
Minister Bayrakar left his post under claims of corruption a week after a graft probe went public on December 17, 2013. Immediately after his resignation, he admitted in a live TV interview that he did everything under orders from his boss, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, pointing to him as the man who was at the top of the corruption chain. He added that Erdoğan should also resign.
AWARDING GOV’T CONTRACTS TO CRONIES IN SECRET, NO COMPETITIVE BIDDING DEALS
According to the details of the case file, Kurum was asking construction firms to sign contracts for power supplies for building projects and meals for workers with DAF Yönetim Sistemleri ve Enerji A.Ş. and Pınar Yemek, both of which companies were connected to Oğuz Bayraktar, who was named as a silent partner. Although the contracts were required to be awarded in a competitive and transparent bidding process, Kurum and his associates awarded contracts in private, enriching cronies and causing the taxpayers to lose money.
A phone conversation on November 21, 2013, wiretapped under a judge’s orders, showed how Kurum and minister Bayraktar decided on the contracts for food delivery for workers at a mass housing construction site in İstanbul’s Kayabaşı district. On the phone, Bayraktar was vouching for a firm named Aşhan Yemek Gıda Turizm San. Tic. Ltd. Şti, run by high-school classmates, and asking Kurum to give a contract to the aforementioned firm.
Full text of the summary of proceedings in the TOKI criminal investigation:TOKI_graft_probe_Dece_2013
Kurum reminded the minister that the food contract for that site had already been given to Pınar Yemek as he and the minister had previously had discussed and agreed. Bayraktar confirmed the deal and then asked whether a new contract from some other construction site could be arranged for Aşhan. Kurum responded in the affirmative and said he would award a meal supply contract to Aşhan in the future.
In another phone conversation on October 26, 2013 Bayraktar is heard approving Kurum’s work in awarding one food contract to his son Abdullah and the other to a man named Ali. In a March 4, 2013 phone conversation, Bayraktar ordered Kurum to give another food contract to a man named Haşem Kıroğlu.
FINANCING THE PRO-GOVERNMENT MEDIA WITH ADS
The investigation file also revealed how the Erdoğan government indirectly financed pro-government media groups. In a phone wiretap dated November 20, 2012 Bayraktar told Kurum that the Albayrak Group — a conglomerate that has been a loyal ally of Erdoğan and that has business interests in various field including media — complained about not receiving enough advertisements from construction firms that were doing business with government entities such as Emlak Konut and TOKI.
“This Albayrak media group, i.e., Net TV and Yenişafak, says the builders who do business with Emlak Konut don’t give us anything [advertisements],” Bayraktar said in relating a conversation he had with a representative of Albayrak. Kurum said, “Dear Minister, as Emlak Konut, we try to include them [Albayrak Group] in every advertising package [for Emkak Konut]. I’ll do the same for the contractors, tell them to focus on those [Albayrak media outlets in their commercials]. I’ll tell them personally myself.”
Bayraktar asked him to talk to Teknik Yapı and construction mogul Ali Ağaoğlu about placing ads with Albayrak media outlets. The minister also asked Kurum to expand the sponsorship to the Kanal 24 TV network, a pro-government channel, and said it was necessary to support this outlet. Emlak Konut was already a sponsor of the weather section of Kanal 24 at the time. Kurum said he would do more as the minister wished.
On January 9, 2013 Bayraktar called Kurum while the minister was hosting Tevhit Karakaya, an associate of President Erdoğan who was then-CEO of Kanal 24, in his office and asked Kurum to give financial support to the network that goes beyond merely placing commercials. “I’m with Tevhit Karakaya, CEO of Kanal 24. We need to give a little more support to them, Murat. We need to empower them a little bit more other than announcements and advertisements,” Bayraktar said. Kurum responded in the affirmative.
Bayraktar also instructed Kurum to talk directly to editor-in-chief of Kanal 24 Mustafa Karaalioğlu as well as other editors in pro-government media outlets to make arrangements to expand financial support to their media outlets.
The investigation file also showed how Kurum illegally gave apartments to people close to the government when those apartments were supposed to go to low-income families since they were built by government-controlled real estate firms. In a wiretapped phone conversation on July 9, 2013 Bayraktar called Kurum to assign one apartment in a TOKI-built urban transformation project next to the Olympic Stadium in Istanbul. He said Ali Balta, a nephew of his deputy Muhammet Balta, wanted a 122-square-meter apartment in that complex and asked him to give a good discount in the price. Kurum said he would do so.
In a phone conversation dated July 24, 2013 Kurum called Mehmet Ali Kahraman to complain about the Taşyapı construction firm, which was asking for an additional payout in the amount of 57 million Turkish lira on a contract with Emlak Konut. Kahraman said the company had already made an additional profit of between 100 to 200 million lira when favorable changes in construction plans were approved by authorities in an illegal scheme.
ERDOĞAN’S FAMILY FOUNDATION BENEFITED FROM CORRUPT DEALINGS
The investigation also revealed that the corruption and kickback scheme was pursued by Kurum with full knowledge of then-Prime Minister and now President Erdoğan. A phone conversation that took place on December 10, 2013 and was recorded under a court order as part of the graft probe showed that construction mogul Ağaoğlu promised to donate land to an Erdoğan family organization, the Foundation for Youth and Education in Turkey (TÜRGEV).
Ağaoğlu, whose construction business had grown significantly during the Erdoğan government’s time in office, received government favors in his business pursuits according to the investigation file, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. In the phone recording, Bayraktar is heard telling Kurum: “Speak with Ağaoğlu and let’s get this organized as soon as possible because the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] is closely following this. He keeps asking about it. I’ll talk to Bilal [Erdoğan’s son] and find out whether we will give the property to TÜRGEV or the company there. I’ll call you back after that, and you talk to Ağaoğlu. Tell him, ‘You promised this property to [TÜRGEV] and we will take this from you’.”
Ağaoğlu was detained on December 17, 2013 in a corruption investigation into the Erdoğan government but was saved from legal troubles when the government stonewalled the probe and later hushed it up.
According to Canadian-based journalist Said Sefa, Kurum has been handling the business affairs of the Erdoğan family, especially those of Bilal Erdoğan, and has worked as a money man for the family for years. He was sent to Istanbul from Ankara in 2006 and placed in a key position in TOKI’s Istanbul branch to approve and promote urban development projects. In 2009 he was brought in to head Emlak Konut. In the meantime, he helped enrich Erdoğan’s family with government favors with amendments to construction codes, planning and zoning changes, and revisions in building permits that benefited people and firms close to Erdoğan’s family. “This is the name that has played the biggest role in the plundering Istanbul, and today he stands as the minister of environment and urban affairs,” Sefa said.