American-Turkish Council loses its status

The American Turkish Council (ATC) and the U.S-Turkey Business Council (USTBC) announced their integration in September, bringing the ATC’s 40 years of independence to an end. U.S. Chamber Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs Myron Brilliant said in a statement the move was made to “deepen the U.S. business community’s focus on Turkey”

However, there is  reason to believe that the ATC lost its autonomy because of its deepening association with its Turkish counterpart, the Turkish-U.S Business Council (TAIK).

In a filing by TAIK’s long time Washington lobbyist Mercury Public Affairs dated April 3, 2019 to the U.S Department of Justice, as required under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), the firm listed ATC as its foreign principal. In the filing, Mercury chose to err on the cautious side before agreeing to help ATC.

“Registrant [Mercury] is registering this principal [ATC] in an abundance of caution. ATC is a U.S.-based membership organisation that includes several multinational organisations as members,” the filing reads, noting that ATC is funded by these organisations and Mercury “cannot confirm that each and every member of ATC does not have any affiliation or connection with a foreign government or foreign political party.” 

The ATC has traditionally served as a neutral business association that did not answer the dictates of either the U.S or Turkish governments. It worked to protect its political independence and promote bilateral business and investment relations between its members. 

Sources who worked closely with the ATC described to Ahval a gradual take-over by the TAIK that would bring the two into closer alignment. These sources described disagreements between the two that involved threats to U.S companies in Turkey as well as concerns about potential violations of U.S. laws including FARA. 

This saga began in the aftermath of the 2013 Gezi Park protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since he came to power in 2003. Former ambassador James Holmes, ATC’s president at the time, criticised Erdogan’s crackdown on the protesters and spoke out about the state of Turkish democracy at several panels. 

These acts displeased many Turkish officials tied to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who later sought to oust him in a smear campaign. In 2014, Holmes resigned as ATC president after what he described at the time as pressure from Turkish government through TAIK, and pressure placed on the ATC chairman, President Barack Obama’s first National Security Advisor James Jones, by the Turkish Embassy in Washington.

Former ATC sources said that threats were made against U.S companies operating in Turkey and that they would only end if Holmes stepped down, which played a role in his decision to resign for the good of the council’s members.

The Turkish Embassy denied these allegations in 2014, saying no pressure was put on anyone at the ATC. Jones was not be immediately available for comment.

After Holmes’ resignation, he was replaced by former banker and Marine Corps officer Howard Beasey as president. In comments made to media outlets during his tenure, Beasey insisted that his focus was on promoting inclusiveness, and in contrast to Holmes has been less critical of Erdoğan’s government.

Beasey’s tenure however coincided with heightened tension in U.S-Turkish relations. This included a failed putsch against Erdoğan in July 2016 that the Turkish government accuses preacher Fethullah Gülen of orchestrating from U.S soil. The imprisonment of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, U.S support for the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria that Turkey calls a terrorist group, and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence missiles all contributed further to a deterioration in ties. 

In 2018, this nadir directly affected the ATC’s annual business conference in Washington co-hosted by TAIK. Citing a need “to facilitate greater attendance from both countries”, the conference was postponed until autumn of that year. 

Beasey resigned the next year, but the exact date is unclear. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency referred to him as a former chairman in July 2019, yet Beasey’s LinkedIn profile lists his retirement as October 2019, a month after the ATC-USTBC merger. 

Asked for comment, Beasey declined to speak about his time at the ATC. 

TAIK began to increasingly try and assert control over ATC during these tense times, the sources said. Several were concerned, particularly about violations of the ATC’s own bylaws and potentially U.S laws, including FARA.

Under the ATC’s bylaws, 51-percent of participants on its board have to be from U.S. companies. Some have doubts that this number is actually met despite one former senior source saying this provision had been meticulously followed by ATC lawyers in earlier years.

FARA-related violations were another concern particularly after Ekim Alptekin was appointed head of TAIK in 2014. These came up largely in the context of ATC’s annual conference for which the sources said TAIK regularly sought to conclude a memorandum of understanding (MOU). Because of TAIK’s budget support from Ankara and it yielding to government policy direction, ATC may have been required to register as a foreign agent if an MOU were signed. 

These concerns were present early in Beasey’s presidency. In an exchange that was part of a Wikileaks dump from the email account of Erdogan’s son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, TAIK officials forwarded to Albayrak a message from Beasey concerning an undisclosed FARA issue related to the annual conference. 

“The opinion articulated by [law firm] Arent Fox concerns only the conference, and not on what has been the traditional relationship between ATC and DEIK/TAIK,” Beasey wrote to Serif Egelim, who was then a chairman of the TAIK board. “The ATC can no longer maintain an exclusive relationship with DEIK/TAIK based on U.S law.”

The attempts to secure an MOU do not appear to have ended there. The April 2019 annual conference that ATC was the first time that the body ever was listed as a foreign principal to any lobbying firm. This was short-lived because Mercury filed an amendment with the Department of Justice a week later to state ATC terminated the contract. 

No other FARA filings between the April conference and September merger with USTBC show ATC listed as a foreign principal for any new lobbying firms. 

Alptekin stated early in his tenure that the ATC “should avoid politics as much as possible”. That statement is contradicted by subsequent actions on his part. A former ATC official told Ahval that Alptekin encouraged donations to be made to members of Congress for the specific goal of defeating votes on the Armenian genocide. The former official said he promoted these contributions coming from TAIK members, which would have been illegal under FARA and campaign finance laws. 

The foreign lobbying issue would eventually catch up with Alptekin when he was indicted by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller for lying about payments to Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, who was accused of acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Turkey. Alptekin remained on the board of TAIK, but was replaced as chairman by Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, a Turkish businessman known for his close ties to the Trump family. 

All of these issues related to uncertain adherence to bylaws, potential attempts to violate U.S law and TAIK’s increased influence over ATC may have influenced its fusion into the broader Chamber of Commerce. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.