Turkish Groups Offer Free Foreign Trips For Lawmakers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Who's providing free foreign trips to state lawmakers -- and what do they want?
A group of Tennessee legislators will soon be packing their bags and heading overseas for what most Tennesseans would consider an exotic trip.
But those lawmakers will not be picking up the tab -- and few seemed to know anything about the group that is.
In the waning days of this year's legislative session, lawmakers debated whether proposed changes to the state's campaign finance laws would open the door to foreign influence.
"If you want to know who contributes to my campaign, it's as easy as the click of the mouse," said Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Smith County Republican.
Still, what you won't find online -- and what Weaver did not mention -- is that, in late May, a select group of state lawmakers will be jetting off for a 12-day, all-expenses paid trip, landing first in Azerbaijan, then heading a few days later to nearby Turkey.
The invitations came from a group called the Turkish American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast -- with the money coming from a sister group called the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians.
Both groups have ties to a movement headed by a moderate Muslim imam named Fethullah Gulen.
"You have accepted the invitation to go on the trip?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Rep. Mark White.
"I would like to look into going on that, yes," the Memphis Republican answered.
"Why is that?"
"Because it's an educational experience."
White is one of the nine lawmakers who have accepted the invitation to go on the trip.
Others, according to a list provided to NewsChannel 5, are:
Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville; Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah; Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville; Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis; Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis; Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis; and Terri Lynn Weaver.
Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons has also agreed to go, as has his assistant commissioner David Purkey.
"Does it matter to you who is paying for this trip?" we asked White.
"Yeah, we'll find that out," he answered on the last day of the legislative session. "Like I say, I just have not had a chance to -- we've been so busy in session -- just haven't had a chance to look into that yet."
Fethullah Gulen has generally drawn praise for his moderate religious views and his message of tolerance. Time Magazine just named him to its lists of the 100 most influential people in the world.
But a U.S. State Department cable published by Wikileaks describes his movement as being one that "officially professes to be interested in ecumenical understanding, but whose roots are intensely Islamic."
As 60 Minutes reported last year, the movement is also behind a secular network of science and math charter schools that began in Turkey and has now spread to the U.S.
One of those is in Memphis.
In fact, our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that the president of the Turkish American Chamber, Ayhan Korucu, is also the president of a Gulen school, the Fulton Science Academy, in Atlanta.
And the president of the Turquoise Council, Kemal Oksuz, is -- according to the New York Times -- a principal in a company that has built Gulen schools in the U.S. Oksuz also has served as chairman of the Gulen Institute in Houston and was interviewed for a PBS story on the imam.
The trip comes at a time that some lawmakers, like White, are pushing legislation to make it easier for charter schools to get approval to open across the state.
"You're telling me something that I haven't heard before," White said.
"Should you have asked who was providing the funding before you accepted?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
"Well," the lawmaker answered, "it's been done for so many years I didn't see any problem with it."
House Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who has been helping to coordinate the upcoming trip, keeps in his office mementos from both Azerbaijan and Turkey from a trip he accepted last year.
Brooks said that there were five Tennessee lawmakers on that trip.
Other lawmakers, according to Brooks, were: Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis; Rep. Joe Armstrong, R-Knoxville; Rep. Josh Evans, R-Greenbrier; and Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville.
It was trip that Brooks described as part economic development, part goodwill.
"What we gain is, one, an understanding of a society that wants to be a friend to this country," he added.
But Brooks insisted that charter schools were never discussed.
"That has never been an item of discussion," he said.
And Tennessee isn't alone in getting attention from the Turkish groups.
According to a news report, some lawmakers have had second thoughts about such trips in Texas, where there's a whole chain of Gulen schools.
But even if the ultimate goal is to curry favor with lawmakers, Brooks still doesn't see a problem.
"If you're a legislator in the state of Tennessee and if you don't have the courage to vote your conviction -- whether someone has given you a donation or not -- you don't need to be down here -- simple fact," he said.
One of those invitees, Rep. Johnnie Turner, insisted that she is a staunch charter school opponent and has never discussed the issue with her hosts.
Under Tennessee law, if the hosts had hired lobbyists, these trips would be illegal.
But, as is, they are entirely legal -- and no one has to disclose them to the public.
Late Monday, NewsChannel 5 Investigates heard from Kemal Oksuz -- and he put the cost at close to $4,000 a person. He said lawmakers from several states were being invited.
Still, Oksuz insisted the goal is about establishing opportunities for partnerships, not about charter schools.