Fact-finding mission or junket?
Some lawmakers are bewildered that the groups that paid for their trips are now swept up in Turkey’s current political turmoil.
“I can’t imagine what they would have wanted out of the North Dakota state Legislature,” said former North Dakota state Rep. Ben Hanson, a Democrat who went on a trip sponsored by a Gulen group in 2013 with six other lawmakers from his state. North Dakota does not currently allow charter schools and has few ties to the Middle East.
“It seemed like their group was trying to educate people and trying to bridge relations, and that seemed like a positive thing in and of itself,” he added.
The Center for Public Integrity attempted to contact the legislators it identified as having gone on the trips. Of the 34 lawmakers willing to comment, most spoke of their trips positively. Many said their trips were packed with educational information and meetings with Turkish businessmen or officials and were not pleasure tours. While some, like Moxley in Kansas, defended Gulen’s followers, others said they didn’t know what to make of recent events in Turkey.
“That’s above my pay grade,” said Roger Katz, a Republican in the Maine Senate who traveled to Turkey.
Some said they had no idea the sponsors of the trips were even part of the Gulen movement. To be sure, many of the trips occurred before the movement became an enemy of the Turkish state.
“The people I was associated with were devout Muslims and, I thought, the nicest people,” said Harry Kennedy, a former Democratic state senator in Missouri who went to Turkey in 2008. “But we really didn’t talk much about international politics.”
Lawmakers who have gone on the trips also have praised the experience as a way to dispel myths about Muslims in a post-9/11 world. But not every trip participant walked away with the same conclusions. New Mexico state Sen. George Munoz said he left his trip early.
“I thought it was interesting to see another culture and government, but there were some things that were deeply wrong,” the Democrat said. “There’s a reason our country chose Christianity.”
Gulen-movement groups are not the only ones paying for foreign travel by state lawmakers who have no power over foreign affairs. The government of Taiwan has sponsored trips for state lawmakers, and various Jewish nonprofits have taken state legislators to Israel.
But the Gulen movement’s efforts are extensive. For years, Gulen’s followers have been making friends in the United States by offering receptions, awards dinners and the subsidized trips — and not just for state lawmakers.
A 2015 USA Today investigation found the Gulen movement organized 200 trips for members of Congress and their staff.
One Gulen movement member estimated that more than 7,000 Gulen-movement-sponsored trips for North Americans occurred between 2003 and 2010, at an estimated cost of $17.5 million. The trips included mayors, university professors, journalists and other community leaders from across the United States.
The Center for Public Integrity’s review of lawmakers’ disclosures show that the Gulen-movement groups shelled out between $1,000 and $7,047 per trip.
Some lawmakers’ spouses also came along for the subsidized journeys, which often included visits to major Turkish historical sites such as the Hagia Sophia, a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait, shopping, as well as tours of Gulen-linked institutions such as Zaman, a daily newspaper, or private schools run by the movement.
Though some lawmakers paid for the cost of their flights to the country, expenses such as hotels, meals and tours were frequently covered by Gulen-movement nonprofits, which run on generous donations from Gulen’s followers, experts said. In addition, local Turkish followers of Gulen often donated funds specifically for the trips and then hosted the travelers in their homes for dinners or joined them for tours.
While federal lawmakers’ trips are governed by strict rules and must be disclosed, state regulations and their interpretations vary. Many states that regulate lawmaker gifts and travel include exceptions for educational trips, and none ban subsidized travel for legislators outright, according to Ethan Wilson, an ethics expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
For example, Colorado bans gifts for lawmakers above $50, but the state’s ethics commission ruled that the Turkey trips fall under the definition of “fact-finding missions,” which are allowed.
And though some Kansas legislators reported their trips in financial disclosures, at least two did not. They told the Center for Public Integrity that the state ethics commission told them it wasn’t required, though the director of the commission said hotel stays worth more than $500 should be disclosed.
North Dakota does not have any rules barring such trips, nor does it even require them to be disclosed.
Still, lawmakers should scrutinize perks offered to them carefully, said Mike Palmer, an ethics consultant who has worked on ethics codes for municipalities and government agencies. Certain groups like federal contracting officers have strict bans on gifts for good reason, he said.
“There’s a balance there between receiving education and being lobbied,” Palmer said. “What one would ask is: ‘Why are they providing this? Why is this person taking me to lunch? What’s in it for them?’”