Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a routine in New York City, where he goes every year for the United Nations General Assembly, to attend the traditional gala dinner of the Turken Foundation, which is run by his family members and relatives. However, this year, Erdoğan did not attend any Turken events. The chairman of Turken had a short meeting with Erdoğan along with a dozen other Turkish-American NGO representatives on Sunday. The decision of Erdoğan’s office lies in the fact that the foundation is facing serious allegations of the unlawful receipt of Turkish taxpayers’ money. The foundation has interestingly not engaged in any activities for a long time.
Turken, which is registered as a 501(C)3 not-for-profit educational organization by the US Internal Revenue Service, was established in 2014 by the Ensar Foundation, notorious for numerous sexual abuse cases in Turkey, and the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGEV), which has been accused of unfairly profiting from public resources. Turken overtly operates as part of Erdoğan’s deep network in the US. In an e-mail exchange that appeared in Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak’s inbox and was leaked by Wikileaks, Erdoğan’s son Bilal openly wrote to family friend Halil Danışmaz that he would devote his time to the Turken Foundation as part of his work related to the US. Halil Mutlu, the former chairman of Turken who is also a cousin of President Erdoğan, now works as the ruling party’s US representative.
A Nordic Monitor survey shows there are no upcoming events announced on the foundation’s social media accounts. Contrary to its founding purpose, the foundation has never awarded any scholarships. The last trip organized by the foundation for American university students was in 2019. There is no past event announcement by the foundation for the gala dinner Erdoğan attended in 2021. Even the meeting of the president of the foundation with Erdoğan last Sunday is not on the foundation’s website. The official website, which gives the impression that it has not been updated for a long time, contains very limited information about the foundation. Likewise, there is no work by Turken with media outlets close to Erdoğan. Turken partners TÜRGEV and Ensar’s websites do not contain updated information about Turken apart from statements concerning accusations from the opposition.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu claimed in a statement on Twitter in May that Erdoğan transferred money abroad through front companies posing as foundations, hinting at TÜRGEV, Ensar and Turken.
Kılıçdaroğlu wrote, “They establish a foundation. They appoint an American citizen as president. But the real management of the foundation is done by members of the Erdoğan family. Two foundations, TÜRGEV and Ensar, send money to an American citizen who accepts it on behalf of the Erdoğan family.” Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that around 1 billion lira was transferred. Party representatives later made clear that Kılıçdaroğlu meant Turken.
Turken was also on the agenda in 2019 after opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu became mayor of İstanbul His office had revealed that foundations and associations close to Erdoğan and his family received some 847 million lira ($145 million) in 2018 and late 2017. TÜRGEV, one of the founders of which was Bilal Erdogan, received 51.6 million lira ($8.9 million), and the Ensar Foundation, which provides religious education and dormitories for students, received 29.8 million lira ($5.1 million) from municipal funds.
According to US Internal Revenue Service tax records, Turken received donations amounting to $24,460,759 in 2015. By June 2017 foundation assets totaled $43,680,873. It still is not entirely clear how they specified the source of the donations.
The CHP’s US representative, Yurter Özcan, claims that Turken illegally borrowed $35 million from the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia in June 2020. In addition, according to Özcan, Turken received a total of $67 million in donations between 2014 and 2020, but information about donations it has collected in the last two years is not available.
Turken is building a mixed-use, 21-story residential tower designed as a culture center and housing for Turkish students studying in New York. According to the state-run Anadolu news agency, the building in Manhattan will have a prayer room, recreation area, offices and student accommodation and will be able to host 220 students.
The foundation also purchased the 81-acre estate of deceased boxer Muhammad Ali in Berrien Springs, Michigan, on December 21, 2018 for $2.5 million. The estate will reportedly be turned into an educational camp and summer school.