By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
The Salon.com website published on September 4 and 5, 2020, a lengthy two-part expose of a Black American group that tried to raise funds from Turkish businesses in support of President Trump’s reelection. The articles were titled, “How a pro-Trump Black group became an off-the-books Turkish lobbying campaign: A Salon investigation reveals a strange tale of Black Trump surrogates who tried to leverage Turkish billions,” and “The Turkey hustle: How a pro-Trump Black group became unofficial lobbyists for Erdogan: A sketchy nonprofit linked to the Trump campaign tried to orchestrate a massive trade deal.” The articles were written by Roger Sollenberger and Kathleen O’Neill.
Salon.com reported that “In 2018, officials with a controversial pro-Trump nonprofit called the Urban Revitalization Coalition (URC) -- which recently lost its tax-exempt charity status and made headlines earlier this year with suspicious cash giveaways to Black voters -- facilitated an off-the-books foreign influence campaign on behalf of powerful people in Turkey.”
“URC officials Darrell Scott and Kareem Lanier, both prominent Trump surrogates in the Black community, are said by multiple sources to have used the organization as a vehicle to ‘solicit donations,’ including from wealthy Turkish nationals. Some of these solicitations came by way of former MAGA-world star [Turkish writer] Rabia Kazan,” according to Salon.com.
Furthermore, “an associate of Scott and Lanier named Bruce Levell, a Trump surrogate, former congressional candidate and Small Business Association advocate…allegedly shook down Kazan for cash, then asked her to destroy records after reports of government raids on former Trump attorney Michael Cohen's home and offices,” Salon.com reported.
These Black American efforts were intended to shape U.S. policy expecting a large investment in the United States by Turkish businessmen. According to Salon.com, “some of these activities, described in detail below, raise serious legal questions, such as violations of rules governing tax and lobbying law, experts tell Salon. Legal experts and people familiar with the URC told Salon that given these activities, the organization appears to have functioned as a shell lobbying and fundraising operation, and a go-between that communicated with both the Trump administration (and Trump campaign) and Turkish interests close to Erdogan. This is a story about how peripheral players, including foreign nationals, worked on the legal margins of lobbying, campaign and foreign agent laws amid the chaotic free-for-all of the Trump presidency. They blurred official and unofficial administration posts with other organizational and campaign roles, and obscured the source and usage of funds from both the public and government agencies such as the IRS and Federal Elections Commission.”
It all started in 2018, when “URC officials first curried financial favors and investments from Turkish business representatives in connection with an economic initiative launched by the Trump administration,” according to Salon.com. “Turkish business emissaries secured meetings in New York and Washington that extended to Trump officials, Republican members of Congress and campaign surrogates such as Tom Barrack [billionaire and close friend of Pres. Trump], and Lara Trump [the president's daughter-in-law and Trump campaign adviser].”
This multi-billion dollar scheme was intended to open the American manufacturing market to Turkish companies. “The fact that these meetings were apparently geared towards influencing official U.S. policy, experts say, raises questions about whether those involved should have registered with the Department of Justice as foreign agents,” Salon.com reported.
“The URC made headlines when it held campaign-tinged events with cash giveaways for Black voters in poor communities, including a $25,000 raffle last December -- something the organization had told the IRS it wouldn't do. Politico described the raffles as a nationwide strategy of holding events ‘in Black communities where they lavish praise on the president while handing out thousands of dollars in giveaways,’” according to Salon.com.
“Multiple people familiar with the workings of the URC told Salon that it was clear that Scott and Lanier established the organization to do what they had frequently told Rabia Kazan they were prevented from doing within Michael Cohen's politically-focused predecessor organization, the National Diversity Coalition, which was effectively an arm of the Trump campaign. That is, to take in money. There's documentary evidence that the URC sought and received large sums of money in at least one instance. It received a $238,000 grant from America First Policies, a pro-Trump dark money organization affiliated with the super PAC America First Action. The URC received the grant in 2018, a few months after directing Kazan to seek financial contributions. Because the URC never filed a tax return, however, it is impossible to know how much money the group took in or how that money was spent,” Salon.com reported.
Turkish businessman Ali Akat, “who met several times with Scott and Lanier, was supposedly discussing a comprehensive, multi-billion-dollar investment plan that would open opportunities for Turkish companies to gain manufacturing and packaging footholds by investing and building factories in Opportunity Zones,” according to Salon.com. “The plan would have taken advantage of a loophole in U.S. tariffs. Akat told Turkish media that Turkish business owners could evade high duties if they exported unfinished products to the U.S., where those products would be assembled and packaged, ideally by Turkish companies in Opportunity Zones.”
(To be continued next week)