By George Joseph, Bianca Pallaro, and Gwynne Hogan | November 8, 2023
Eric Adams’ 2021 mayoral campaign accepted donations from three members of a foundation incorporated by Bilal Erdogan, a son of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and whose board members include Erdogan’s daughter, Esra Albayrak. The campaign is at the center of an FBI probe looking into whether it conspired with the Turkish government to accept illegal foreign contributions.
Adams on Wednesday acknowledged meeting Erdogan while he served as Brooklyn Borough President in response to questions from THE CITY. Under Erdogan, the U.S. State Department has repeatedly cited Turkey for widespread human rights violations including reports of arbitrary killings, torture, and the detention of political opponents, journalists and activists.
Campaign records show that between 2018 and 2021 the Adams campaign received $6,000 from three U.S. citizens who are board members of the charity, the Turken Foundation, which registered as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice last year. Turkish opposition leaders have alleged that the foundation is a vehicle for the Erdogan family to stash away millions outside the country. (The Adams campaign returned $1,000 to one of the individuals for exceeding a $2,100 contribution limit.)
In July 2018, Adams’ mayoral campaign also received $12,600 in contributions from two board members of the Turkish American Steering Committee (TASC), an advocacy group previously co-chaired by an associate of Erdogan’s political party. The Adams campaign had to give back more than $8,000 of those contributions due to campaign contribution limit rules.
As part of their probe into potential foreign influence in the 2021 mayoral race, federal investigators are currently looking into whether the Turkish government used U.S. citizens as straw donors to mask foreign campaign contributors. Neither Adams nor any member of his campaign have been accused of any criminal wrongdoing.
The donors are all volunteers to the Turken Foundation and TASC and did not list those organizations as employers when making the contributions.
THE CITY contacted the three donors from the Turken Foundation. One of them, foundation treasurer Memis Yetim, said that a “close friend” of his, whom he declined to name, may have handled his donation, which lists him as living in the non-existent city of “Staten Island, NJ,” using the New Jersey street address where Yetim is registered to vote.
The Adams campaign submitted his donation to the Campaign Finance Board for public matching funds, according to campaign records. Only New York City residents are eligible to qualify for the City’s $8-to-$1 matching fund program.
On Wednesday, Adams told THE CITY, “I was at a dinner once here for a nonprofit and…the president of Turkey was there and…constituents here in New York City stated that I was extremely supportive of them.”
“He greeted me,” Adams said of Erdogan. “He said hello. We exchanged pleasantries. I was the borough president at the time.”
Adams did not name the nonprofit, and a spokesperson for the mayor didn’t immediately confirm it.
“There is nothing in the documentation or information provided to the campaign by contributors that indicated a connection to the Turken Foundation or or the Turkish American Steering Committee,” said Vito Pitta, an attorney for the campaign.
The Turken Foundation hosted Erdogan at fundraising dinners in New York City in 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021, according to records filed with the Department of Justice. Likewise, the Turkish American Steering Committee, which shares membership overlap with the Turken Foundation, hosted Erdogan at a 2019 event in Manhattan, which included Yetim and Behram Turan, the chair of the Turken Foundation.
The Turken Foundation and Turan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Adams’ ties to the Turken Foundation go back to at least 2017.
Brooklyn Borough office records show that in April 2017, Rana Abbasova, now Adams’ Director of Protocol in the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, requested a meeting on behalf of the Turken Foundation.
A year later, Adams presented the Turken Foundation and Yetim with a “certificate of appreciation” for its “contribution to the region and intercultural relations.”
That November, the Turken Foundation broke ground on a 21-story building it had already spent more than $26 million on as part of an envisioned center for student housing. The building is located in midtown Manhattan, but one elected official was there for the opening ceremony, smiling before cameras and holding a shovel: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.
Previous Turkish-Linked Donations
Adams’ relationship with Turkey first came under public scrutiny last week, as news broke Thursday that the FBI had raided the home of his campaign’s chief fundraiser 25-year-old Brianna Suggs.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Lisa Zornberg, City Hall’s chief counsel confirmed they had been in communication with the Southern District of New York regarding the inquiry.
“Yes of course we are,” she said. “The mayor has publicly pledged his cooperation and we’ve been in touch.”
Federal law bans foreign nationals and governments from donating to local, state or federal political campaigns.
Last week, the New York Times reported that the FBI was investigating KSK, a Turkish-American construction company, as part of a probe into alleged straw donations and illegal foreign influence in the 2021 mayoral race.
THE CITY subsequently spoke with an employee of KSK, who said that he did not recall making a $1,250 contribution which was made out to the Adams campaign using his name.
The Times also reported that the federal probe was looking into Bay Atlantic University, a small Turkish-owned institution in Washington, D.C.
THE CITY later reported that Adams’ 2021 mayoral campaign received and returned $10,000 in donations from people linked to the university.
The Turkish Foundation directors and other individuals associated with the entity, and KSK Construction and Bay Atlantic University employees, all donated $22,950 to Eric Adams’ campaign, which added up to an extra $22,000 in potential matching funds.
During the 2021 mayoral race, New York City’s Campaign Finance Board asked the Adams’ campaign to explain who had bundled together both clusters of donations from KSK and Bay Atlantic University employees.
But the Adams campaign did not provide this information to the board.
Adams has denied any wrongdoing. At a press briefing Wednesday said his frequent travel to Turkey was part of a global campaign to attract business to Brooklyn, as borough president, and now to New York City, as mayor. THE CITY reported Adams met with representatives of Bay Atlantic University on two trips, one of which was funded by Bahcesehir University, along with Turkish Airlines and the “Turkish Culture and Promotion Office in New York.”
“We just thought it was a great opportunity to exchange ideas as we do with all these…countries and we want to attract businesses here,” Adams said. “So Turkey as well as any other country, I want to attract people to the city. There’s nothing specific about that one particular country.”
Adams added he would be “shocked” if his campaign faces formal allegations of wrongdoing.
“I just can’t tell you how much I start the day with telling my team, ‘We gotta follow the law. We gotta follow the law,’ almost to the point that I’m annoying,” he said.
“I just strongly believe you have to follow the law. It would really shock me if someone that was hired by my campaign did something that was inappropriate,” Adams said.
This story was published by THE CITY on November 8, 2023.