Turkey’s influence over lawmakers surfaces in Ohio hearing


Labeling the killing of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923, many at the hands of Ottoman government, an act of genocide has been a controversial issue in Turkey, among some historians, in the U.S. Congress, and now in the unlikely venue of the Ohio Board of Elections, where recent hearings indirectly considered the government of Turkeys connection, if any, to Turkish advocacy groups in Washington.

Backed by lawyers from the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, filed a false claims complaint against David Krikorian, who ran against her in 2008 as an independent and garnered 18 percent of the vote. Schmidts complaint stems from campaign literature in which Krikorian claimed she has taken $30,000 in blood money from Turkish sponsored political action committees to deny the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children by the Ottoman Turkish government during World War I.

Though Jean Schmidt doesnt sit on the subcommittee responsible for the Armenian Genocide legislation, its clear that shes a favorite of the Turkish community. With $18,450 in contributions from three Turkish-focused PACs since 2007, the second-term House member has received far more than even influential senior members, and nearly twice as much as the second-highest recipient, Virginia Foxx, whose son-in-law is Turkish. A list of fundraisers compiled by the Turkish Coalition USA PAC shows that the group held several events for Schmidt, raising thousands more. And four individuals who gave to Turkish PACs also donated a combined $8,700 directly to Schmidts campaign.

At issue before the Ohio Board of Elections is whether Krikorians language holds upwhether it was accurate to describe three Turkey-focused political action committees as Turkish sponsored. The false claims complaint against Krikorian comes after the board censured Schmidt for a reckless disregard for truth in her own campaign literature.

Lobbyists for the government of Turkey, including former congressmen Bob Livingston, made more than 2,260 contacts with officials in an unparalleled push to quash a resolution in Congress that would deem the events genocide. But political action committees favored by Turkish Americans have, on paper, no direct connection with the state.

In a deposition, Schmidt repeatedly told Krikorians attorneys that she could not recall details about her fundraising and legislative discussions. She said she had never heard of the Armenian massacres until Krikorianwho is of Armenian heritageraised the issue, and that she still hasnt decided how she would vote on a resolution that would condemn the act as genocide, should it reach the House floor.

But materials put out by the Turkish Coalition of America and authored by a lawyer, Bruce Fein, who now represents Schmidt in the complaint, say that Congresswoman Schmidt has on numerous occasions voiced her opposition to such resolutions and maintains that the historical question is not appropriate for Congress to legislate. The congresswoman, based on her independent research, does not believe the tragic events constitute genocide.

Schmidt acknowledged reading a book on the killings by Guenter Lewy, a college professor, which figures in a controversy of its own. The Southern Poverty Law Center claimed that the government of Turkey paid Lewy to pen the book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, in a manner favorable to the country. In December, Lewy, represented by two lawyers from the Turkish American Defense Fund who also hold positions at the Turkish Coalition of AmericaBruce Fein and David Saltzmansued the Southern Poverty Law Center and the reports author, on the grounds that the article claimed that Lewy was an unregistered foreign agent, which he says is false. The government of Turkey has funded academic programs, including the Institute for Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, and endowed professorships.

As Krikorians counsel questioned Schmidt about whether the PACs were indeed sponsored by the state of Turkey, he repeatedly tried to nail down Schmidts view of the 1915 events. Schmidt sought some wiggle-room by saying that genocides were, by definition, state-sponsored, and that no trial or tribunal had concluded that the massacre was directly linked to the government at the time.

In June, while President Barack Obama visited Turkey, an essay appeared in a Turkish newspaper under Schmidts byline opining that the United States should not investigate the killings. What happened in 1915 must never be forgotten, the article said, but in her deposition, Schmidt was squishy about just what happened.

A fundraising e-mail from a Turkish PAC says she is willing to stand up to the Armenian lobby, and it is important for the Turkish community to support her. But Schmidt, who says her campaign was run by her husband, her chief of staff and interns, claimed to have no role in setting up the fundraisers, no inkling of why Turkish donors had become a surprising part of her fundraising base and no recollection of meeting top donors, including one who chauffeured her around Turkey. (In May, Schmidt took a $10,000 trip to Turkey, sponsored by the Turkish Coalition of America.)

Its not the first time Schmidt has declined to take a clear position or found herself making statements contradicted by her record. This week, video surfaced of her telling a woman who claimed that Obama may not have been born in the United States that she agrees with her, despite having previously issued a statement saying he is indeed a citizen of this country.

Schmidt expressed little familiarity with the workings of her campaign as well as the complex ties between Turkish groups, including the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund, whose lawyers, she says, are being paid in campaign funds. (The latest expense reports dont reveal the amount.)

What is the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund? she is asked.

Its a U.S. organization that has a PAC, she answers.

The Legal Defense Fund does?

I dont know. I dont know. I guess it doesnt. I dont know. I dont know what it is.