[Editor's note: back in the day when we actually ran letters to the editor, we'd also allow writers to respond to the wackier scribbles. Then, of course, the Internet came in and ruined journalism and made letters to the editor as irrelevant as Vernon Wells. But late last week, after Gabriel's great story about the proxy war being waged in Anaheim by Turkey president Recep Erdogan, attorneys hired by the Turkish government sent the following letter to the Weekly. It was such a great callback to our letters fun back in the day, that I asked Gabriel to respond to the response. Enjoy!]
Turkish Politics Are No Excuse for Charter School Fraud in California
By Robert Amsterdam
It was with a certain level of bemusement to read the recent column published in OC Weekly on May 12 by Gabriel San Roman, which made a number of disparaging and misleading claims regarding the abuses of the U.S. charter school system by the Turkish figure Fethullah Gülen.
In San Roman’s profoundly misinformed article, he rails against the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) for having hosted a screening of the documentary “Killing Ed,” which exposes a complex fraud conspiracy taking place across a wide range of charter schools under the control of Gülen, accusing them of being made “puppets in a proxy war” in Turkey.
But the fact remains that no matter what opinion anyone has of political disputes in Turkey does not make it OK for this group to break the law, misappropriate school funds, defraud taxpayers, and leave California students and parents in the lurch.
San Roman portrays the Gülen organization as a benign movement that is being targeted only because of their beliefs, but the known facts revealed by investigations into the schools underscores the weakness of that argument.
Magnolia Public Schools – one of Gülen’s many charter operations (his ownership is always concealed) – has been audited many times by state regulators, and the findings are shocking. The audits show that Magnolia has consistently failed to implement any sort of effective financial controls, which facilitates an environment of cronyism, theft, and abuse of funds, including a staggering 69% of transactions were not properly documented, authorized, or both.
Magnolia is also spending hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars to hire foreigners, who steal jobs from qualified California teachers. From 2009-2011, they imported 238 Turkish teachers on H1-B visas (sometimes spending as much as $60,000 on legal fees for a single teacher) at the same time that LAUSD laid off 3,000 Californian teachers.
According to California law, any public funds received by a charter school are strictly limited for appropriate public purposes, but the Gülenists approach money with the one-bucket mindset – that they can take public funds and redirect them to anywhere they choose, including shifting funds among and between the different schools and contractors as they see fit, which is a clear violation of the law.
Specifically, the audits found that Magnolia took over $5 million in taxpayer funds from its public charter schools with budget surplus from 2011-2014 to hide the insolvency of its corporate office. Magnolia later claimed these hidden transfers were "loans," but there were no interest rates, terms of repayment, or even documentation to protect the lending schools.
Lastly, there is the deeply questionable behavior of Magnolia, which withdrew multiple applications for new charter schools almost immediately after we began to voice concerns to the respective districts and communities. Then, using their immense political power (Magnolia and its sponsors are well known for massive political donations), they attempted to influence state legislation to deprive the inspector general for LA Unified of any auditing oversight of their illegal operations.
These are all very serious problems that have a direct impact not only on California taxpayers but also on the students and families attending these schools. Keep in mind that this secretive foreign organization that controls some 150 U.S. charter schools via dozens of non-transparent fronts is controlled by a billionaire fugitive who is wanted by Turkish law enforcement. Also keep in mind, that among many other activities, Gülen has in the past been caught stealing civil service exams, presumably to help his members cheat to gain access to government positions.
Is the Republic of Turkey pursuing an international investigation into Fethullah Gülen? Absolutely. This clandestine movement has penetrated state institutions, organized false trials and false imprisonment of their opponents, and appears to be exploiting the charter schools funding procedures to funnel money out of the country.
Yet, whenever they are confronted with evidence of these fraud schemes, the first reaction from the Gülenists is cry out Islamophobia – an argument from the Gülen PR machine that San Roman seems to have unwittingly championed.
As a lawyer who for many years has represented prominent Muslim political figures, and is currently representing the Republic of Turkey, I find it deeply offensive for someone to make the Islamophobia accusation against completely innocent individuals who have come forward to shine a light on inconvenient facts.
Some may disagree with regard to the political landscape in Turkey, and that is to be expected. But that can never be a sufficient basis for impunity for another group to commit crimes in the United States.
If anyone in California is curious why we are asking these questions of Magnolia Public Schools and the activities of the Gülen movement, it is not because of faith, belief, or even politics. It is because the administration of Magnolia are behaving like criminals.
And now, here's Gabriel's response. Drive the lane, son!
I read with a "certain level of bemusement" myself when Robert Amsterdam tweeted, "Audacity of Gulen PR machine never ceases to amaze," while posting my story on Twitter the day after it published online. This coming from a lawyer whose firm is racking in the big bucks ($50,000 per month according to Politico) to represent the repressive government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan! What I did in my story was to put the complaint against Magnolia schools in California in its proper geopolitical context because it sure as hell ain't a principled campaign against privatizing education. Amsterdam himself says so. "In the United States there’s a big discussion between public schools and charter schools in terms of how education is focused," the lawyer commented at a press conference on the investigations."We take no position on that structure."
That's not the only peculiarity of liberals like Anaheim Union High School District superintendent Mike Matsuda, trustee Al Jabbar and Anaheim City Council candidate Jose F. Moreno collaborating with Erdogan's attorneys. There's that whole Killing Ed film they screened to nearly 1,000 people in March. The best part of Amsterdam's letter is when he found accusations of Islamophobia against "completely innocent individuals" to be "deeply offensive," further adding that the Weekly has "unwittingly championed" the Gülen PR machine in doing so.
I don't know if anyone in the Gülen movement has actually seen Killing Ed, but I have. A tale of a Muslim cleric in America with a legion of schools alone can deliver a case of Islamophobic heebie-jeebies if not careful. But the documentary goes all in, especially at its frenzied end. An off-camera voice asks a supposed Gülen historian and critic named "Serhan" what he would tell parents sending their kids to Gülen-affiliated schools in Texas. "They have a goal, they have an agenda," the man says while completely obscured in red. He then rails off "global Islamic State," "Shariah Law," and wanting to bring "the Ottoman Empire back" as the Gülen movement's secretive aspirations.
That's the final word. There's no interviews of learned scholars on the issue like Joshua D. Hendrick, author of Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World or Northeastern University sociologist Berna Turam—just "Serhan." And there's definitely no mention of Erdogan himself openly espousing sultanic ambitions, whether parading with period soldiers or presenting himself as Turkey's Great Father to Turkish immigrants abroad. The dramatic scenes of the 2013 Gezi Park protests in the film similarly erases Erdogan from the repression.
Beyond the film itself, Killing Ed has a big problem with promoting and endorsing the anti-Gülen scribbles of notorious Islamophobes online. A Facebook post on February 4—a little less than a month after the Amsterdam law firm, Anaheim liberals, and film director Mark Hall all got to know each other—points people in the direction of the Center for Security Policy's "Gülen and the Gulenist Movement" report; actually, the full title includes the sub, "Turkey’s Islamic Supremacist Cult and its Contributions to the Civilization Jihad." No red flags there!
The Center for Security Policy (CSP) is a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) stamped anti-Muslim extremist group, and a survey by the stink tank provided the basis for Donald Trump's call to ban incoming Muslim immigrants. Clare Lopez, one of the co-authors of the Gülen book, made SPLC's "Women Against Islam" list last year for a host of reasons, not least of which includes this quote: "When Muslims follow their doctrine, they become jihadists."
None of this seemed to register with Killing Ed on Facebook. "If you are looking for a great primer on Killing Ed, this is a great place to start," the booster post said of CSP's Gülen study. And when folks start with the monograph, they'll read a foreword by none other than CSP head Frank Gaffney Jr., an anti-Muslim former adviser to Ted Cruz, who calls the Gülen movement a "Trojan horse in our midst." Killing Ed pointed people on Facebook to Lopez again the day before the Weekly published its article. The love fest goes both ways. During a recent talk at the Westminster Institute, Lopez promoted Killing Ed and saying of Hall, "We got in connection with each other" when the CSP book and his film neared completion.
Killing Ed's defenses are laughable. "There's a difference between sharing and interviewing with organizations whose views differ from your own and endorsing that view or promoting them," the film's Facebook page replied when I challenged them. When they gave CSP's report a ringing endorsement, the spin is even more hilarious! "Definition of a primer: a small introductory book on a subject," Killing Ed tweeted back to me. Whether asked about The Alex Jones Show, which Hall happily appeared on, or the CSP, the filmmaker and his crew have failed to call Islamophobes Islamophobes.
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But all this is just Gülen PR machine muck, right Amsterdam?
Charter schools, including Gülen-affiliated ones, aren't above scrutiny. But when they're challenged by Erdogan's lawyers, necessary questions of ulterior motives arise. And when the public opinion battle is waged with rank xenophobia (Amsterdam in his letter rails against "foreigners...who steal jobs from qualified California teachers"—nice to see you again, Pete Wilson!) and Islamophobia, any good-faith intentions are severely sullied.
Sad to say, Killing Ed isn't going away. Despite the film's broad appeals to Islamophobia, Hall's friendly appearance on an Islamophobic program and the promotion of stink tank pseudo-intellectual droppings of Islamophobes online, the Weekly has learned the Santa Ana Educators' Association is hosting a private screening on June 6 from 4-6 p.m. at its headquarters anyway.
Maybe they'll do their homework in time and rethink things unlike Anaheim's education liberals, who stand by the film for unfathomable reasons. What a bunch of turkeys!