Turkey Targets U.S. Schools in Federal Court Over Dissident

TURKEY – (WARSOOR) – Turkey has turned to the U.S. courts to seek evidence against American charter schools it says are funding the activities of a dissident living in Pennsylvania.

The Turkish government has asked federal judges in Ohio and Illinois to make the schools turn over a trove of documents on their expenditures and employees for a criminal investigation in Turkey. It alleges that the charters are using funds obtained through illicit schemes to help Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric it blames for an attempted military coup, run subversive operations back home.

In going straight to the courts, Ankara is bypassing an established procedure, known as a mutual legal assistance treaty, in which a request is made of the U.S. Justice Department to gather facts on behalf of another nation. A Turkish prosecutor said in a declaration filed in one of the cases that the treaty process was “cumbersome.”

Turkey’s aim: to show that the schools are “fraudulently siphoning public education funds away from their intended purpose” to finance Gulen’s activities, according to a court filing.

The charter school network, Concept Schools, says the allegations are part of a political smear campaign.

Concept “has no affiliation with the Gulen movement or any national, political, social, or religious organization,” spokesman Christopher Murphy said in a statement. “There appears to be a concerted effort by foreign actors to discredit Concept Schools and tarnish Concept’s reputation for what we can only believe are politically motivated foreign policy reasons.”

The schools are among more than 150 across the U.S. that Turkey says are linked to supporters of Gulen. Turkey’s legal salvos in Ohio and Illinois, which court documents indicate began in August, are the latest move against the schools, which it says are a key funding source for a movement it has blamed for the failed 2016 coup.

They are in keeping with a Turkish broadside on Gulen, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that has included seeking his extradition from the U.S. and enlisting President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to turn American public opinion against him.

The Amsterdam & Partners LLP law firm, which Turkey has hired, produced a report it say links the founding of the Concept schools to Turkish immigrants who launched schools for Gulen in other countries, including Thailand and Japan. The network’s board members are active in Turkish cultural associations affiliated with Gulen, according to the report.

The Turkish government alleges that the schools have engaged in bid rigging for renovation contracts, lunch administration and real estate deals, as well as visa fraud to relocate Gulen supporters to the U.S., where it says they are employed by the institutions and required to kick back a portion of their salary to Gulen’s movement.

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Turkey has filed a broad set of document requests, which it is asking the courts to enforce, seeking information on employee visas and citizenship status, payments to vendors exceeding $5,000, the schools’ communications about the student nutrition program, and more.

Its subpoenas target 10 schools. Nine of them are science, math and engineering-focused charters in Ohio, run by Horizon Educational Services of Columbus Inc., that belong to a network of charters Concept operates in several states. Concept also operates the 10th school, the Chicago Math and Science Academy.

‘Political Vendetta’

“Rather than seeking discovery for use in a legitimate foreign proceeding,” Turkey is “trying to harness the U.S. court system in pursuit of its ongoing campaign of political persecution and harassment,” lawyers for the schools wrote in the Illinois case.

Horizon, too, denies any connection to Gulen and says the allegations about illicit funding are baseless.

“Turkey has taken this political vendetta abroad to harass and disparage U.S. citizens of Turkish descent and U.S. organizations that it believes are followers of Gulen,” the Ohio schools wrote in a court filing. “The academies are not part of a vast international criminal money-laundering or immigration-fraud conspiracy.”

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The Turkish Embassy in Washington referred questions to Robert Amsterdam of Amsterdam & Partners, who declined to comment. The firm has made payments to a group opposed to charter schools and lobbied officials in several states about the allegedly Gulen-linked schools in their area, federal records show. Turkey has funded investigations into them and provided the results to regulators and law enforcement agencies.

Representatives of Gulen didn’t respond to a message, sent through a web portal they have designated for news media inquiries, seeking comment on Turkey’s allegations. Gulen and his supporters have denied orchestrating the attempted coup.

The MLAT Factor

Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and other Western allies has grown vexed in recent years as the NATO partner has turned increasingly nationalistic under Erdogan. The U.S. State Department said in a report last year that Turkey had detained and arrested its own citizens as well as Americans suspected of links to Gulen, “often on the basis of scant evidence and minimal due process.” Turkey has dismissed 130,000 civil servants and arrested more than 80,000 citizens since the 2016 coup attempt, according to the report.

To spearhead its efforts against the schools in the U.S. courts, Turkey retained the law firm Nixon Peabody LLP, according to court records. Instead of seeking the enforcement of the subpoenas through the mutual legal assistance treaty, or MLAT, the firm chose to directly petition the federal district courts, a process more commonly used for cross-border private-party disputes.

A spokesman for Nixon Peabody declined to comment.

The Horizon schools are a mixed lot academically. One got an A from Ohio in the state’s most recent letter-grade assessment, and several others a smattering of C’s and D’s. The Chicago school got a “commendable” on its most recent report card.

The Concept schools have faced other scrutiny from authorities in the U.S. Ohio auditors have questioned the relationship between parties involved in some school real estate transactions. And the U.S. Justice Department last month settled a civil case with Concept in which the company paid $4.5 million to resolve allegations that it rigged bids for internet access equipment and services for schools in Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. The case grew out of an investigation begun in the Obama administration.

The Justice Department didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the case.