The Turkish government has paid a union-backed left-wing activist group in Ohio nearly $50,000 over the past 10 months as part of a influence campaign aimed at undermining a network of charter schools operating in the Buckeye State.
But while the activist group, Progress Ohio, opposes charter schools on principle, the Turks have no particular opposition to the movement. Instead, the Turkish government hopes to cut off financial support for Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in self-exile in the U.S.
To do that, the Turkish government has hired Amsterdam & Partners, a London-based law firm that has offices in Washington, D.C., to conduct research and media outreach on charter schools operated by supporters of Gulen.
With a $50,000-a-month budget from the Turkish government, Amsterdam & Partners has hired a stable of lobbyists, consultants, media companies and advocacy groups to help undermine the schools, which are estimated to number more than 150 across the U.S.
One group hired for the project is Progress Ohio, which has been paid $49,500 since last August to provide “public and media relations services” regarding Concept Schools, an Illinois-based charter school management company that operates facilities in several states in the Midwest.
While Concept’s founders are Turkish and have acknowledged being influenced by Gulen, Mark Weaver, a spokesman for the company, says that their only ties to Gulen are the influence they’ve taken from the cleric’s liberal teachings regarding education.
But to Gulen’s opponents, Concept Schools and other chains exploit U.S. taxpayers by funneling money back to the Gulen movement through various contracting schemes and real estate deals. Groups like Progress Ohio have accused the schools of providing inferior services to students.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally of Gulen’s, hopes that sapping the Gulen movement of its funding will debilitate Gulen, who Erdogan accuses of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government.
Amsterdam began working for the Turkish government in Aug. 2015. Since then, the firm, which is owned by Robert Amsterdam, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars develop a case against schools operated by alleged Gulen supporters.
Sandy Theis, the executive director of Progress Ohio, readily acknowledges her group’s partnership with Amsterdam. But she denies that its involvement has anything to do with Turkish politics.
“Progress Ohio’s role has been assisting Amsterdam with research related to a complaint filed with our state auditor against the chronically failing Concept Schools,” Theis told The Daily Caller.
She says that her teachers’ union-backed group released its own investigation of the charter school chain long before being hired by Amsterdam.
“I view the work that Progress Ohio did with Amsterdam as a public service. I’m the mother of two and believe that all kids deserve a quality education. In Ohio, too few kids get what they deserve,” she said.
Weaver, a former deputy attorney general of Ohio, disputes the claims made by Amsterdam and Theis. He says their allegations have been based on flimsy evidence. He also says that investigations spurred by Concept’s critics have uncovered no wrongdoing.
“Once we now know that the Erdogan regime is funding the efforts of Progress Ohio, to me that’s all we need to know about any statement they make. This is Turkish internal politics being played out in the heartland of America,” Weaver told TheDC.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported earlier this year that the Ohio Board of Education is still reportedly investigating Concept based on complaints filed by Progress Ohio and Amsterdam last year. The newspaper noted that an investigation spurred by union-backed groups in 2014 found that a majority of complaints against the schools could not be substantiated.
While Progress Ohio’s goal is to dismantle the charter school system altogether — it is funded in part by teachers’ unions — other Amsterdam consultants aim to weaken the network using slightly different tactics.
Andrew Kovalcin, the founder of Advanced Advocacy, one of Amsterdam’s subcontractors, lobbies conservative groups to undercut Gulen-inspired schools.
As foreign agent lobbying disclosures filed with the Justice Department show, Kovalcin claims in his pitches to conservative groups and Republican policy makers that he is a charter school supporter who is concerned that the schools will hurt the school choice movement.
In a March 30 email released in the disclosures, Kovalcin forwarded a article critical of Gulen to officials with the the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Republican Attorneys Generals Association calling the Gulen-linked facilities “some bad charter school apples” that could put “the entire system at risk.”
In a Feb. 23 email, Kovalcin thanked Ashely Montenegro, the finance director at Republican Attorneys General Association, for setting up a meeting between Amsterdam & Partners founder Robert Amsterdam and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Kovalcin referred to he and Amsterdam as “pro-charter” before asserting that Gulen schools “have been charged with, or are highly suspected of, tampering with admissions, grades, attendance and testing.”
He also alleged that the charter schools have been accused of embezzlement, nepotism and “shady real estate deals.”
“This is also a record of charter school instability and other unsavory tidbits,” he wrote.
Amsterdam has hired other consultants and PR firms in Texas and California.
Jim Arnold, an Austin-based lobbyist, has lobbied Texas state senators and legislators on laws calling on more transparency for charter schools. An adviser to Sec. of Energy Rick Perry’s campaign for Texas lieutenant governor, Arnold also worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Kindel Gagan, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm, has lobbied Los Angeles school board members to undermine Magnolia Schools, another charter school network with alleged ties to Gulen.
The ultimate goal of Amsterdam’s client, the Turkish government, is to gain custody of Gulen, who is in his late 70s. Erdogan and Turkish government ministers have repeatedly pressured the U.S. government to extradite Gulen to face terror charges for his alleged role in the coup.
The demands appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Like the Obama administration before it, the Trump administration has showed no signs of pushing for Gulen’s extradition.