COLUMBUS - More than 150 state legislators from around the country, including Ohio's speaker and three other current and former lawmakers, accepted subsidized junkets from a Turkish opposition group that the country’s government now blames for an attempted coup.
State lawmakers who rarely get involved in foreign policy matters were courted with international trips. In Ohio, Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville; Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Sabina; and former Rep. Peter Beck, R-Mason, traveled to Turkey in December 2011 for an eight-day trip, which included visiting farms to discuss livestock trade and sightseeing excursions to Istanbul. Former Rep. Tracy Heard, D-Columbus, took a separate trip to Turkey that year.
The invitations came from a group associated with a powerful religious movement that recently fell out with the government in Turkey, a pivotal U.S. ally that serves as the gateway to the Middle East. Though followers of the movement deny having supported the failed coup, Turkey has asked the United States to extradite its leader, Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Islamic cleric who lives in a compound in the woods of Pennsylvania.
The Center for Public Integrity documented the extent of the trips nationally, identifying lawmakers from 29 states who toured Turkey between 2006 and 2015 thanks to more than two dozen Gulen-affiliated nonprofits. In Ohio, a group called the Niagara Foundation paid $1,540 to $2,006 for each Ohio lawmaker’s trip, which the legislators disclosed on ethics forms.
“It was related to trying to get more livestock exchange, so a very policy-based trip,” said Rosenberger spokesman Brad Miller.
At the time, all lawmakers were members of the Ohio House of Representatives. Rosenberger has since become the chamber’s leader. Peterson was elected to the state Senate. Heard became House minority leader and then left the Legislature due to term limits. Beck was imprisoned for unrelated theft and securities-related crimes. A judge ordered his release from prison in December.
“They learned about Turkish culture, visited factories and met officials from the Department of Agriculture and the textile, automotive, aircraft and auxiliary equipment industries, according to a news release from the Niagara Foundation about Rosenberger, Peterson and Beck's trip. Officials from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and Clinton and Highland counties, along with the legislative aide of then-Rep. Ted Celeste, D-Columbus, also went on a Niagara trip to Turkey.
Heard, D-Columbus, also disclosed in ethics forms that the Niagara Foundation paid for a $1,215 trip to Russia in 2012. Her trips and other events with the foundation were helpful in discussing exchange of a certain breed of cattle, she said, along with developing relationships with people of a variety of faith backgrounds.
Heard said she heard Gulen's name when she visited a school in Turkey associated with his movement, but didn't know much about him at the time. "He didn't have anything to do with our trip. We didn't meet him or have any interaction with him."
The Turkish government now says Gulen is to blame for a failed coup in Turkey last summer. He orchestrated it all from Pennsylvania, the government says.
At the time of the lawmakers’ trip, Gulen was not considered persona non grata. Gulen supporters say the trips for lawmakers promoted intercultural dialogue, a key component of the cleric's teaching. The former imam preaches a unique brand of Islamic mysticism paired with Turkish nationalism and respect for modern science.
Other experts think the trips had political motivations.
“It’s like any other lobbying or political operation,” said James Jeffrey, who served as ambassador to Turkey under President George W. Bush and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. “They’re doing this to advance their cause.”
The Gulen movement has been linked financially to the Chicago-based management company Concept Schools. That group runs 17 charter schools in Ohio, including Horizon Science Academy in Bond Hill. Concept Schools denies the tie, along with allegations that Gulen-affiliated actors both run the schools and profit from rent the schools pay for their buildings.
Horizon Science Academy also has faced scrutiny after complaints of testing irregularities, unqualified teachers, sexual misconduct and attendance tampering. An Ohio Department of Education investigation found those claims were not substantiated.
The school also was raided by the FBI in 2014 as part of an investigation into its use of federal money intended for technology.
Peterson, the southern Ohio lawmaker, said he took the trip to try to drum up business for the Wilmington Air Park and the livestock industry in southwestern Ohio.
“I don’t know if we talked about education at all,” Peterson said.