Turkish lobbying efforts to influence U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham

On Nov. 13, senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham blocked a unanimous consent vote on a U.S. Senate Resolution recognising the Armenian genocide immediately following an Oval Office meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arranged by President Donald Trump. The Turkish government has paid U.S. lobbying firms millions to defeat similar resolutions in the past.

In comparison, the Armenian government has invested little in U.S. lobbying, last paying a firm to lobby in the U.S. in 1999. Lobbying in favour of the Armenian genocide resolution is spearheaded by U.S.-based non-profit organisations, including the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).

According to the most recent IRS returns, the AAA raised nearly $2 million in 2017, however, as a 501(c)(3) non-profit group it is not permitted to spend a substantial amount of its budget on lobbying. According to disclosures required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), the AAA spent $95,000 on lobbying activities in 2018 and $80,000 so far in 2019.

The ANCA is registered as a 501(c)(4) non-profit, meaning it can spend the majority of its budget on lobbying. Its total revenue in 2017 was nearly $850,000, but the organization only spent $120,000 on lobbying in each of the past two years, according to LDA disclosures.

After the U.S. House passed a bipartisan resolution to recognise the Armenian genocide and a sanctions package to reprimand Turkey for its intervention in Syria, the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC) issued a call to action, labelling the bills a “racist regime of anti-Turkish legislation”.

TASC’s leadership and their associates have direct connections to Erdoğan’s inner circle and a recent history of making individual political contributions to Graham.

A review of FEC documents using the Center for Responsive Politics’ donor lookup tool shows that although some leaders of the AAA and ANCA do make individual political contributions, there are no clear patterns of coordination like there are among the leaders of Turkish-American organisations like TASC.

TASC’s co-chairman, Dr. Halil Mutlu, is a cousin of Erdoğan. He and his wife donated a total of $10,800 to Team Graham Inc., the senator’s re-election campaign for Senate in 2020, on Aug. 8, 2016. Their individual contributions of $5,400 each are the maximum an individual can give to a political campaign in the U.S. per election cycle.

Mutlu’s employer, Baystate Medical Center in Massachusetts, is one of Team Graham’s biggest sources of donations. In the current election cycle, the hospital’s employees have contributed $21,600 to the senator’s 2020 campaign.

Nimeks Organics’ employees are another top 20 source of contributions for Team Graham, providing a total of $16,200 in individual donations this cycle. Nimeks is a product line of Natural Foods Group based in Pennsylvania, which imports food products from Turkey. The company’s CEO, Murat Güzel, is also the treasurer of TASC.

The Güzel family donated a total of $8,100 to Graham’s presidential election campaign on June 28th, 2016, despite the fact that Graham had dropped out of that race the previous December. The donation came shortly after the coup attempt in Turkey.

Just weeks later, Güzel and his family donated a further $10,800 to Team Graham, one day before the Mutlu family donated the same sum on Aug. 8. Neither the Mutlus nor Güzels are constituents of Graham, who represents South Carolina.

Güzel’s donation to Graham stands out, because he frequently donates to Democratic candidates and parties. In 2016, he was the chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Heritage Council and contributed nearly $300,000 to democratic committees supporting Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Emails leaked in a hack targeting the account of Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law and current Treasury and Finance Minister, revealed that Güzel maintained close contact with Albayrak, the president’s son, Bilal Erdoğan, and the president’s spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın. In several emails, Güzel asks Turkish officials for help coordinating his political activities.

In a Sep. 8, 2016 email, İbrahim Uyar, a co-founder of TASC, told Albayrak that the FBI questioned him about whether TASC and other Turkish organisations were involved in efforts to intervene in American politics on the Turkish government’s behalf. Uyar also indicated several others were questioned including Güzel and Halil Danışmaz, the founding president of the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO).

In emails to Albayrak years earlier, Danışmaz once proposed a “camouflaged” lobbying campaign to overcome “funding regulations and tax barriers that limit lobbying activities in the U.S.”. When the emails were released, Danışmaz resigned from the THO.

The current THO president, Ali Cinar, provided testimony in 2017 to Congress that supported key Erdoğan administration priorities including: advancing the perception of Gülenists and Kurdish militants as terrorists and dismissing concerns that Turkey represses journalism.

Cinar was previously the treasurer of the Turkish Coalition of New Jersey PAC, now called the Turkish Coalition Northeast PAC, for the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

In recent years, Mutlu, Güzel, and Cinar donated to the PAC and its affiliate, the Turkish Coalition USA PAC, which organises the Turkey Caucus of U.S. Congress members.

The Turkish Coalition Northeast PAC has a history of giving generously to candidates and committees of both major parties. However, it's maximum allowable donation of $5,000 to Team Graham in April is its largest gift to a candidate committee in the current election cycle.

In comparison, Armenian-American PACs are poorly funded and contribute very little to U.S. political campaigns, particularly in recent election cycles.

Team Graham also received $1,000 this year from the law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP. The firm is registered with the U.S. Department of Justice as a foreign agent of Turkey.

The most recent FARA filings show that lobbyists from Greenberg Traurig met with Graham on Jan. 10, a week before the senator travelled to Turkey to meet with Erdoğan regarding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.

During the trip, Graham attended a Fazıl Say concert with Erdoğan on the president’s invitation. Graham described the concert as “one of the best experiences” of his life.

Greenberg Traurig lobbyists then met with Graham again on Feb. 6, a week before the senator travelled to the 2019 Munich Security Conference, where he asked U.S. allies to step in and help stabilise the region after the United States withdraws from Syria.

At the conference he said that if the United States and its allies would not act, Turkey would move to address the threat it perceives from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

“We owe it to Turkey, an ally, to fix this problem,” the senator said. The following week, Greenberg Traurig made its donation to his re-election campaign.

It is hard to tell whether Graham’s actions have been affected by Turkish lobbying efforts. While the senator blocked a vote on the Armenian genocide resolution, he has also fiercely criticised Turkey’s military operation in Syria.

What is clear is that the close-knit network of Turkish organisations and political action committees in the United States with ties to the Erdoğan family think Graham is worthy of the investment of their time and political contributions.