A Turkish religious movement founded by a mysterious religious scholar named Fethullah Gülen is behind the secret funding of more than 200 trips to Turkey by members of the United States Congress since 2008. An extensive investigation by the USA Today newspaper has found that these trips have been “repeatedly violating House rules and possibly federal law.”
Gülen is much of an enigma except to his closest followers. He is wanted in Turkey, accused by the current government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of attempting to overthrow his government. But he was once close with Erdogan, until a falling out two years ago.
The Gülen movement has founded hundreds of charter schools across the United States and around the world, has its own media organizations and has a powerful network of business leaders and organizations in a confusing net of subsidiary groups.
The USA Today investigation has found that a dozen different Gülen groups sponsored congressional travel since 2008 and have filed forms with the House certifying that they were paying for the trips. The House Ethics Committee approved all the trips in advance based on the forms the Gülen groups submitted.
Lobbyists, lobbying firms and foreign principals are prohibited from arranging or financing trips, but members of Congress can accept free travel paid by nonprofits, who are not required to disclose their contributions.
But, according to the investigation, many of those disclosures were apparently false. Some of the Gülenist groups claimed to be certified nonprofits, but they do not appear in state or IRS databases of approved charities. Groups that did register with the IRS filed tax forms indicating that they did not pay for congressional travel. And five of the groups admitted to congressional investigators earlier this year that a Gülenist group in Turkey was secretly covering the costs of travel inside Turkey for lawmakers and staff.
Congressional disclosures show the Gülen-backed trips totaled more than $800,000 in free travel for lawmakers and staff. That number likely underestimates the costs since many of the in-country expenses were not reported. And it is not at all clear where the $800,000 came from, since many of the groups involved do not appear to have the resources to pay for large delegation trips, according to the USA Today’s investigation.
The network of Gülen organizations is hard to untangle. The BBC reported in 2013 “the movement’s influence extends far beyond Turkey, funding hundreds of Islamic schools, and think tanks and media outlets, from Kenya to Kazakhstan. It has attracted millions of followers and billions of dollars.”
The report lists numerous members of Congress— most Republicans and many coming from southern states, taking advantage of the free trips to Turkey.
The influential Washington DC-based news outlet Roll Call also revealed “hidden cash” that funded numerous Congressional delegations to Turkey, noting that the dozens of privately-sponsored trips to Turkey during the 113th Congress put the nation second only to Israel as the biggest foreign destination for U.S. elected officials.