FBI probe into NYC Mayor Adams’ campaign puts spotlight on Turkish influence group tied to Erdogan

NEW YORK — A Turkish-American influence group closely aligned with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been cultivating a relationship with Mayor Adams for at least eight years, the New York Daily News has learned.

Members of the group — known as the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC) — have donated thousands of dollars to Adams’ political operation since at least 2015.

Last year, a top mayoral adviser and a donor to Adams’ transition committee attended a TASC gala at which Erdogan was present.

And TASC has also targeted Adams’ government operation. In 2020, it gave $16,000 in “in-kind” donations to the Brooklyn borough president’s office, which Adams led at the time, although public records don’t make clear what form those contributions took.

Just what TASC might want from a relationship with Adams is unclear. But the interest the group has taken in him and some other U.S. politicians is rooted primarily in Turkey’s public image abroad, according to Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkey and adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“They have been trying for a very long time to have some influence here,” Barkey said of the Turkish government. “The Turks don’t have a very good image here, so that’s why they’re building these organizations like TASC.”

The revelations around Adams’ relationship with TASC come as federal investigators in Manhattan are probing ties between Adams’ political operation and possible straw donations filtered to his campaign by the Turkish government. As part of that probe, FBI agents seized Adams’ phones last month and raided the homes of his top fundraiser, Brianna Suggs, City Hall aide Rana Abbasova and former Turkish Airlines executive Cenk Öcal, who served on the mayor’s transition committee.

In addition to Adams’ fundraising operation, investigators are probing several trips he has made to Turkey over the years. They are also looking into whether anyone affiliated with the campaign took any action to benefit officials in Turkey, according to a search warrant cited by the New York Times.

Adams’ efforts to help expedite fire inspections for the Turkish consulate in Manhattan have received attention as well, though Adams has said he was just doing his job.

The mayor has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and no indictments have been made public as part of the probe.

Groups like TASC perform multiple functions — including lobbying, disseminating information and monitoring perceived threats to Erdogan abroad, according to Barkey.

In Barkey’s estimation, Adams’ connections to Turkey are surprising given accusations that Erdogan’s government has violated sanctions against Iran and has defended Hamas.

“Why would he do so much with them?” Barkey asked.

According to the human rights group Influence Watch, TASC’s co-founders include members of Erdogan’s family, and the group is suspected of “targeting American citizens who are eligible to vote for candidates who can shift policy with Turkey in a pro-Erdogan direction.”

Aside from supporting Adams, people affiliated with TASC have made contributions to other U.S. political leaders, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. Democratic former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who’s running for his old Long Island congressional seat that was recently vacated by Rep. George Santos, held a fundraiser with TASC last year.

Vito Pitta, Adams’ 2021 campaign counsel, said that “the campaign followed every law and rule to the letter on these contributions and all others made to the campaign.”

TASC hosted a gala on Sept. 18, 2022, in Manhattan attended by Erdogan, Adams’ senior adviser Joel Eisdorfer and Israfil Demir, a former TASC co-chairman who donated $1,000 to Adams’ transition team and is now awaiting sentencing for admitting to federal conspiracy charges in New Jersey earlier this year, photos reviewed by the Daily News show.

On top of his TASC co-chair post, Demir, who campaign records show gave the $1,000 to the mayor’s transition committee in December 2021, also used to serve as head of the U.S. youth branches of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ran an election campaign for him in the U.S., according to Middle East Forum.

More than a year before the gala — in May 2021 — New Jersey federal prosecutors charged Demir with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with a scheme to buy and sell counterfeit computers imported from China. Demir admitted to taking part in that conspiracy earlier this year and is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.

It’s unclear why Eisdorfer attended the TASC gala. He did not respond to multiple calls and requests for comment. Eisdorfer’s relationship with Adams dates back to his time as a Brooklyn state senator.

In addition to attending last year’s TASC gala, Erdogan once met Adams at a dinner hosted in the city by a nonprofit. Last month, Adams told reporters the dinner took place while he was Brooklyn borough president, but did not identify the host or specify the year of the event.

“He greeted me,” Adams said of Erdogan. “He said hello. We exchanged pleasantries.”

When asked why Eisdorfer attended last year’s gala, Adams spokesman Charles Lutvak said: “As our administration strives to foster peace during a time of tension in our city and across the world, Joel Eisdorfer works hard every day to cultivate relationships and build ties among cultural groups in all five boroughs.”

He declined to say whether or not Adams was invited to the TASC event.

Demir and his lawyer did not respond to messages. Representatives from TASC and the Turkish consulate in New York City did not return calls and emails, either.

TASC’s links to Adams include campaign contributions as well.

In August 2021, after Adams’ victory in the Democratic primary, he hosted a fundraiser at the Ali Baba Turkish restaurant in Manhattan and was joined by Erol Akyurek, TASC’s New York representative. According to city Campaign Finance Board records, Akyurek has given a total of $3,000 to Adams’ political operation over the last four years — $2,000 to his 2021 campaign and $1,000 to his 2025 run.

During the Ali Baba fundraiser, Adams told potential donors that his campaign needed to “raise $3 million in a short period of time” for the general election, a video posted on YouTube shows.

“All of you here today, I want you to be a part of Team Adams,” he said. “Because I win, you win, and New York City wins.”

A review of campaign finance records conducted by the Daily News also found that TASC board members Murat Guzel and Behram Turan gave Adams’ 2021 campaign a total of $13,100 — $9,100 of which was returned due to campaign contribution limits. But Adams’ ties to TASC go back even further than that.

Ibrahim Kurtulus, a Turkish-American businessman who has been identified in TASC press releases as being a member of the group’s executive committee, began donating to Adams in 2015. He gave $2,000 in February 2015 to Adams’ borough president campaign and another $50 in May 2021 to his first mayoral run, records show.

Kurtulus, who has helped organize several flag-raising ceremonies for the mayor in Manhattan, was caught up in controversy after it emerged that Michael Flynn, former President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, had failed to initially disclose in federal filings a $10,000 payment from Kurtulus to deliver a speech at an October 2016 event in New York.

Once he disclosed Kurtulus’ payment in early 2017, Flynn also belatedly revealed he had served as an unregistered foreign agent for the Turkish government during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Reached by phone last week, Kurtulus declined to say exactly what his role is with TASC today.

“What the hell is it to you?” Kurtulus said before hanging up the phone. He did not return subsequent phone calls.