[Opinion] How did Turkey become a safe haven for money launderers?

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Sevgi Akarçeşme

There’s not a single week that Turkey isn’t rattled by a new scandal. So much so that the country has become immune to scandals revolving around massive corruption. Since the graft investigations of December 2013 were reversed by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, not a single person involved in corruption has been brought to justice. On the contrary, emboldened by the head of the government, con men at all levels are having the time of their lives in Turkey. The country became a haven for the corrupt as it turned into hell for law-abiding and decent citizens suffering from significant oppression and an unprecedented purge.

In this climate of impunity, even foreign con men are attracted to Turkey. Two brothers from Utah, Isaiah Kingston and Jacob Kingston, who devised a fraud scheme along with California businessman Lev Aslan Dermen (also known as Levon Termendzhyan) to receive undeserved tax credits from the US government, chose Turkey as their safe haven for laundering more than $130 million. The trio founded a biodiesel company that was part of a $1 billion renewable fuel tax credit scheme.

In March 2020 a jury found Dermen guilty after four members of the Kingston family –  Jacob and Isiah Kingston, owners of Washakie Renewable Energy in Utah, and the Kingstons’ mother and Jacob’s wife Sally — pleaded guilty. However, the scheme went well beyond the US. When the trio had difficulty hiding the stolen money, Dermen found a Turkish businessman named Sezgin Baran Korkmaz to launder the money in Turkey, which was happy to welcome any kind of “investment” without questioning its sources. According to the indictment in the case, the Kingston brothers laundered over $130 million in Turkey.

The Utah brothers felt so safe in Turkey that shortly before their arrest, they were planning to flee to Turkey thanks to their strong connections developed through Korkmaz.

The scheme made widespread news in Turkey only when Korkmaz was arrested in Austria on June 19 at the request of the US Department of Justice. A recently unsealed indictment charged Korkmaz with one count of conspiring to commit money laundering, 10 counts of wire fraud and one count of obstruction of an official proceeding. According to a statement by the Justice Department, Korkmaz devised a scheme to defraud Jacob Kingston and Isaiah Kingston by falsely representing that he could provide them with protection, through unnamed government officials, from a federal grand jury investigation and civil lawsuits.

At the moment nobody knows the scope of the “protection” Korkmaz promised, but President Erdoğan’s lawyers last year demanded the removal of his photos with Korkmaz and the Kingston brothers from Internet sites. Turkey claims to have requested the extradition of Korkmaz from Austria along with the US, although the opposition in Turkey says that request was never made. However, one wonders why Korkmaz was allowed to flee Turkey in the first place. Indeed, Sedat Peker, the fugitive mobster I wrote about last week in Turkish Minute, revealed the facts of this incident as well in his wildly popular YouTube confessions.

Before Peker spoke up, Korkmaz was known as a generous businessman who donated in particular to students. Peker claimed that Korkmaz seizes companies after causing them to lose value as a result of smear campaigns against the owners. One example was Bora Jet, an airline owned by US-based Turkish businessman Yalçın Ayaslı. In an ongoing case in the US about the sale of Bora Jet, a racketeering complaint claims Korkmaz bribed certain Turkish journalists to smear Ayaslı. The owner was accused of Gülen movement links as part of this campaign, which everyone would try to avoid at any cost given the massive and brutal purge against real and perceived members of this religious network.

The source of Korkmaz’s quick road to wealth was the money he laundered in Turkey for the Kingston brothers and Lev Dermen. In other words, Turkey has become a safe haven for laundering money stolen from US taxpayers.

Mobster Peker further argued that Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu personally met with Korkmaz and warned him about an upcoming investigation. Korkmaz fled Turkey immediately after this meeting. Moreover, an anchorman named Veyis Ateş served as a mediator between Korkmaz and Soylu, demanding 10 million euros from the businessman to “resolve” his issues with the law.

Meanwhile, there is not much independent debate about Korkmaz and his ties to the Turkish government in the absence of a free media in Turkey. If it was not for a mobster, the majority of Turks would not have paid any attention to Korkmaz.

In the months to come, if Korkmaz is extradited to the US and reaches a plea bargain with the prosecutors, we will hear more about him and his ties to top officials in Turkey. No wonder Korkmaz’s lawyers say he wants to be tried in Turkey. After all, it’s a safe haven for criminals and the corrupt while it continues to be hell for anyone who dares to speak out against the rotten regime.

 

Sevgi Akarçeşme is the former editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman and Turkish Minute

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