Did a California Charter School Group Fund an Effort to Overthrow the Turkish Government?
Turkish exile Fethullah Gülen preaches a moderate form of Islam based on a message of tolerance; his teachings have inspired more than 1,000 schools in 100 countries.
Photo via Newscom
Editor's note: The article was published without an opportunity for the Accord Institute for Education and Research to comment, and its representatives have since told L.A. Weekly that it contains "numerous false statements." Accord states it is a nonprofit public charity that provides educational services. Accord asserts an unequivocal denial: 1) that it had any "affiliation whatsoever with Fethullah Gulen or any 'Gulen organization,'" and 2) that Accord required Turkish employees to remit part of their salary for any reason. Accord further says Yunus Avcu is not credible because he was fired by Lotus School for Excellence for "underperformance" and was not an Accord employee. L.A. Weekly stands by the article as originally published below.
More than a dozen times in a single year, Yunus Avcu, a 31-year-old man from Turkey, boarded a commercial flight to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana carrying a laptop case loaded with cash — between $5,000 and $10,000, he claims. The story of how the money ended up in the bag is complicated, but Avcu says his role in it was simple. At the time, in 2013, Avcu worked as the business manager for the Lotus School for Excellence, a charter school in Aurora, Colorado, with an academic focus on science, math and technology. He says he booked the flights on the school's credit card and flew to Orange County about once a month, to drive the money to an office park in Westminster, which was the West Coast headquarters of what he refers to as simply "the organization."
The name on the lease at the office park was the Accord Institute for Education Research, a nonprofit that advertises itself as a provider of management and education services to charter schools throughout the Western United States.
Avcu says going to the organization was like going home. Turkish men occupied every seat in the conference room. The seats were filled by executives from the Accord Institute, as well as superintendents, principals and business managers from the charter schools that contracted Accord's services. Representatives from the various charters' boards had pooled together to found the Accord Institute, to build on and improve the academic model the charters had developed.
The schools paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to Accord for curriculum development and training, as well as administrative services, such as accounting, fiscal planning and grants management.
Avcu says that the executives and officers at the Accord Institute weren't exactly forthcoming with him about what the money he dropped off was for. But he says that, at the meetings, Turkey always seemed to him the overriding concern — trips to Turkey for American dignitaries, Turkish cultural dinners for local officials, and the guarantee that Turkish majorities on the charter schools' boards would hire Turkish principals, who would in turn sponsor the H1B visas for Turkish teachers to come to the United States to work — and, according to Avcu, to make the all-important donations from their salaries to the organization.
According to Avcu, that was the source of the cash he carried. He says that the 11 Turkish teachers and administrators at the Lotus school were obliged to hand it over to him the first week of every month.
Avcu says these payments weren't voluntary; he says the organization also obligated him to return about 40 percent of his own salary every month. He says Accord executives made an Excel spreadsheet at the start of the school year with the salary of every Turkish employee at every school in one column and the amount of money each would owe in another. Avcu says executives determined the amount each Turkish teacher had to return to the organization, based on the employee's seniority, education level, marital status and number of children. "The organization was taking the money from the people," Avcu says. "If you don't pay this money, they don't employ you. If you reject or refuse to pay this, you have to go back to Turkey."
According to Avcu, the cash funded the worldwide organization of Fethullah Gülen, a controversial Turkish preacher living in self-exile in the United States.
Avcu is not the first employee to make such an allegation. According to 60 Minutes, Mary Addi was fired from a school in Dayton, Ohio, that was part of a Gülen-inspired chain of 27 charter schools in the Midwest. Addi went to law enforcement after learning that her husband, a Turkish teacher who also worked at the school, had to turn over 40 percent of his salary — in cash, every pay period — to a secret fund used by the Gülen organization.
Gülen is perhaps Turkey's most famous and influential religious personality, and its most controversial. As recently as 2012, the Gülen movement was the most powerful social force in Turkey outside of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This past summer, the Republic of Turkey accused Gülen and his followers of orchestrating an attempted military coup that nearly toppled the Turkish government and claimed hundreds of lives.
The unrest in Turkey has drawn attention to the worldwide network of more than 1,000 schools that Gülen has established in more than 100 countries, the largest number of which, outside Turkey, is in the United States. These schools are believed to fund Gülen's operation — and they are alleged to have helped fund the coup attempt. Within days of the foiled coup, the government of Turkey asked education officials in Texas, California and Ohio to investigate publicly funded charter schools in those states, alleging that they misused public funds and funneled money to Gülen's movement.
The inspector general of the Los Angeles Unified School District alleges that a California charter school group, the Magnolia Educational and Research Foundation, is among the more than 160 U.S. charter school groups with ties to Gülen. Magnolia operates charter schools on 10 campuses in California, including eight in L.A. It also happened to be headquartered in the same office space as the Accord Institute.
"They were working all together," Avcu says. "It's supposed to be a separate company, but they were all together." He says the person who relieved him of the money from the teachers at nearly every meeting was the then–business manager of Magnolia Public Schools.
Since before the coup attempt, a Canadian international lawyer representing the Republic of Turkey has been pressuring state and local authorities to conduct a full investigation of Magnolia, alleging the foundation is part of the nationwide network of charter schools illegally funneling taxpayer dollars to fund political machinations half a world away. Those allegations come at a time when the L.A. Unified School District is deepening its own two-year probe into alleged financial mismanagement at Magnolia — including the blurred lines between Magnolia and the Accord Institute. In August, the California Department of Education launched a separate probe into allegations of financial mismanagement at Magnolia.
The CEO at Magnolia Public Schools, Caprice Young, denies any formal or financial affiliation with Gülen or the Gülen movement; she does, however, acknowledge that certain current and former directors of the foundation are believers in Gülen's teachings. "Some of our founding principals had ties to Gülen," Young tells L.A. Weekly, but she says those founders are no longer part of Magnolia.
William M. Nassar, the attorney for Magnolia in charge of responding to LAUSD's ongoing audit requests, says the depth and scope of the probe are extraordinary. He calls it "a fishing expedition" through dozens of banker's boxes of personnel files, visa applications and payroll and enrollment records, all dating to the period from 2009 to 2014.
"They're trying to tie us in to the Turkish movement, the Gülen movement," Nassar says. "They're trying to find money going over there, which doesn't exist."
Fethullah Gülen is a fascinating contradiction, a religious ascetic whose net worth is estimated at $25 billion. The Islamic preacher from Turkey is in his late 70s and in poor health, living in seclusion in two tiny rooms at a gated retreat in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. There, at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, he reads and prays, gives weekly sermons, sees students and visitors and runs an Islamic study circle.
Gülen fled to the United States in 1999, fearing arrest by Turkey's military rulers after a video surfaced of him instructing his followers (who held important positions in the government) to carry out a stealth coup. He was later cleared of wrongdoing by a Turkish court but has remained here ever since, becoming a permanent U.S. resident in 2008.
Gülen preaches a moderate form of Islam based on a message of love and tolerance, and he has maintained influence in Turkey through his followers in the legal system and on the police force. Prior to the coup attempt in July, Gülen's followers also controlled Turkey's largest newspaper, an international TV station based in Istanbul, a private bank and a number of the country's richest companies. They also operate more than 1,000 schools in more than 100 countries.
"Fethullah Gülen is a religious community leader who's both the symbolic and operating figurehead of the largest and most influential Islamic community in Turkey of the past 40 years," says Joshua Hendrick, a professor of sociology at Loyola University and author of the book Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World.
As Dexter Filkins wrote in a recent article for The New Yorker, Gülen's religious teachings emphasize the compatibility of Islam with reason and scientific inquiry. "While many Islamists espouse anti-Western, anticapitalist and anti-Semitic views," Filkins wrote, "Gülen's sermons were pro-business, pro-science and — virtually unheard of in the Muslim world — conciliatory toward Israel."
Filkins reported that late on the night of July 15, officers in the Turkish military gave orders to block major roads, detain senior military leaders and seize crucial institutions as part of an attempt to overthrow the government. Some of the coup plotters shot demonstrators, and F-16s piloted by men loyal to the conspiracy bombed the Turkish Parliament. More than 260 people were killed and thousands wounded. Even so, the attempt was haphazard and ultimately defeated by a massive show of popular resistance.
Six months before the coup attempt, in January, Gülen was tried in absentia in Turkey and found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government by masterminding corruption probes in 2013 that targeted people close to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Then, in retribution for the coup attempt, Erdogan in July made a sweeping purge of suspected Gülen supporters in Turkey and began targeting the worldwide network of organizations tied to Gülen, including some 160 charter schools in the United States, which, he alleges, are tied to the reclusive preacher.
Within a day of the coup's defeat in Turkey, President Erdogan issued a televised appeal to President Obama: "Extradite this man in Pennsylvania to Turkey! If we are strategic partners or model partners, do what is necessary."
Gülen has denied involvement in the attempted coup and maintains that the plotters did not act under his orders, though he acknowledged in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria that "there might have been some sympathetic people among them." President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have pledged U.S. support for investigations to determine who was responsible for the attempted coup.
A senior State Department official recently told the Associated Press that Turkey's contention that Gülen and his followers were involved in the failed coup attempt may have some merit. The story, published Oct. 31, quotes the official as saying that charity and educational organizations run by Gülen have a suspicious structure and financing and look "a lot like the ways in which organized crime sets itself up of folks who are trying to hide money for money laundering" rather than a "benign religious movement."
Since 2011, the FBI has raided charter schools with ties to Gülen in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. A Georgia audit found three schools engaged in bid-rigging to vendors with ties to Gülen. A New York audit found one charter school had leased its building in a way that netted millions of dollars for a New Jersey company with ties to Turkey. In Utah, authorities revoked the charter of a school tied to Gülen after an audit uncovered financial mismanagement. In Illinois, a charter group tied to Gülen is under federal investigation for funneling more than $5 million in federal grant money to insiders and away from the charter schools' fund intended to extend Internet access to schools with low-income students.
"This is something that has been happening all over the country," Hendrick says. He says the external audits are driven by very similar grievances, "which highlight financial governance and mismanagement issues."
The Accord Institute first reached the radar of financial auditors during a 2014 investigation of Magnolia Public Schools by the LAUSD. There was one transaction in particular that caught the attention of district auditors, who had been investigating mismanagement of funds.
Suleyman Bahceci, a scientist and educator from Turkey who helped found the Accord Institute in 2007, was Magnolia's CEO from 2009 to 2012. In 2011, Bahceci awarded a $756,000 contract for education and management services to the Accord Institute. By comparison, the total budgeted revenue for Magnolia's charter management organization was $2.2 million that year.
A year later, Bahceci was back at Accord, as its CEO.
Prompted by the potential conflict of interest, LAUSD auditors began to examine the relationship between Magnolia and Accord. Not only did they find that Magnolia and Accord shared a lease in an office building in Westminster but they also examined records that showed Magnolia's charter management organization paid Accord an average of $600,000 a year between 2009 and 2014 — more than $3 million in total. In fact, Magnolia was paying around 25 percent of its total expenditures every year to Accord, at a time when, the report concluded, the charter organization was $1.66 million in the red.
When auditors tried to investigate further, they found that Magnolia's business office hadn't kept records on exactly how the money was spent. The auditors were at a loss. "This lack of accountability over the contract does not allow for an assessment of whether the fees associated with this contract are fair and/or reasonable," according to the LAUSD report on the audit, issued in June 2014.
The sheer array of services that Accord provided Magnolia, from education to financial management, aroused further suspicion among the LAUSD auditors. "It is very unusual to have an outside vendor (Accord) with such an active management role in so many activities," the report states. "This close relationship causes concern around the ability to be independent in relationship to offering both management and consulting services simultaneously."
In August 2014, the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit, which investigates public entities such as schools, ordered the state auditor to examine the allegations in the LAUSD probe. The state auditor would conclude that Bahceci's conduct while he was Magnolia's CEO had not violated California law, since the one-year contract he signed with Accord was no longer in effect when he became Accord's CEO the following year. Nonetheless, both LAUSD and state auditors agreed his conduct conformed to a pattern of "insufficient separation" between the staff at Magnolia and Accord.
Though the state auditor's report, released seven months after LAUSD's, stopped short of identifying any misappropriation of federal, state or local funds, it upheld most of the findings from LAUSD's audit, including Magnolia's weak fiscal controls and management, lack of authorization and support for expenditures, periods in which Magnolia met the federal definition of insolvency, and the concern regarding Magnolia's independence from Accord.
Based on the findings of the LAUSD audit, the LAUSD Charter Schools Division rescinded in June 2014 the charter renewals for Magnolia Science Academy 6 in Palms and Magnolia Science Academy 7 in Northridge. José Cole-Gutiérrez, director of the Charter School Division, said the LAUSD inspector general was reviewing whether to refer the case for criminal prosecution. "You need to know where the public dollars are going — and they are supposed to be going to students," he told KPCC.
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No criminal charges were filed, and Magnolia sued LAUSD and won a court injunction to keep the two schools open, then agreed to improve its management practices as part of the legal settlement.
But the probe of Magnolia wasn't over.
Caprice Young, Magnolia's first American CEO, is viewed as a reformer.
Caprice Young is the somewhat unlikely face of the Magnolia Educational and Research Foundation. She assumed the helm as CEO in January 2015, and her hiring was widely interpreted as a move to both reform Magnolia's management practices and rehabilitate its image. Young is the first American and first woman to serve as CEO at the charter organization, whose four previous CEOs were Turkish men.
Magnolia pays Young a salary of $236,000, and it has provided her the full-time services of a public relations specialist from Larson Communications, an L.A. firm that includes crisis management among its specialties. Magnolia pays the firm $12,000 a month.
Young is a former president of the LAUSD board; she served for four years before losing her re-election bid in 2003. From there, she went on to found the California Charter Schools Association, building it into a formidable statewide organization in her five years as president. By Young's account, her specialty since stepping down from CCSA eight years ago has been turning around charter schools from the brink of financial collapse.
Young says she began working at Magnolia as a consultant in late 2014. Her personal connection to Magnolia dates back to 2001, when, as school board president, she voted to approve Magnolia's first charter school, Magnolia Science Academy 1 in Reseda. She says she has fond memories of the eight Turkish scientists, businessmen and educators who founded the school; the news clipping that commemorates the school's founding is framed and displayed on the wall of Magnolia's conference room.
The eight charter schools operated by the Magnolia foundation in L.A. — in Van Nuys, Carson, Venice, Palms, Northridge, Bell and Reseda — received a collective $26 million in local, state and federal funds in fiscal year 2014, according to audited financial statements. The schools enroll a collective 2,600 students, the vast majority of them from disadvantaged families, school officials say. Eighty percent of Magnolia students are eligible for the school lunch program, and a similar proportion of them are low-income and students of color. Generally the Magnolia charters outperform their public school peers, but not across the board.
Young says she had her work cut out for her. "When I got here," she says of Magnolia, "they were running a $30 million network on QuickBooks."
Magnolia's first charter school, Magnolia Science Academy 1 in Reseda
She is credited with implementing the terms of the legal settlement that kept open Magnolia Science Academies 6 and 7. A Superior Court judge required Magnolia to sever ties with Accord, and Young permitted Accord's contract to lapse in July 2015. Bahceci stepped down as Accord's CEO the same month; he was hired as vice president of student affairs at Virginia International University in Fairfax, a private college inspired by Gülen.
Young denies that Magnolia has any affiliation with Gülen or the Gülen movement. "We don't give them any money," Young says. "We have no contractual, legal or governance relationship."
She does, however, acknowledge that some of Magnolia's founders and key executives are adherents to Gülen's religious teachings.
Magnolia's CEO for its first seven years, Huseyin Hurmali, left in 2009 and became vice president of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, an NGO that boasts Gülen as its honorary president. Umit Yapanel, the current board president at Magnolia, told the L.A. Times in August that Gülen "inspired me to serve." Young mentions that she was part of a charter-school delegation that traveled to Turkey in 2007 with the Pacifica Institute, a Turkish cultural center in Westwood, whose honorary president is Gülen. Young says it was common, before the coup, for public officials and dignitaries to go on such trips, and that Pacifica funded them with royalties from the sale of Gülen's books.
Young replaced the Turkish officers of corporate finance, operations and administration with a team of mostly American executives. Young also replaced five of Magnolia's nine board members. Its new board for the 2016-17 school year consists of three Americans, four Turks, a Kazakh and a Turkmen. She also moved Magnolia's headquarters from Westminster to a downtown office tower five floors above the Los Angeles headquarters of the California Charter Schools Association. She says the 10 Magnolia schools employ 27 teachers from Turkey, "all vetted by Homeland Security, and outstanding math and science teachers."
The State Auditor's report in May 2015 appeared to be a turning point for the organization. It concluded that Magnolia had not misappropriated funds, and it issued a set of 12 recommendations for Magnolia to return to good standing. "The State Auditor gave us a fix-it ticket," Young says.
A month later, in June 2015, California approved $17.4 million in state funding for construction of a new Magnolia charter school for more than 1,000 students in Santa Ana. Young refers to the sizable grant as tacit recognition that Magnolia's financial problems are in the past. The State Auditor declared earlier this year that Magnolia had met its recommendations in the area of management reforms and that Magnolia was financially stable and sound.
Supporters of Magnolia who found LAUSD's 2014 investigation unduly hostile felt vindicated by the State Auditor's report. "While the report did identify some procedural concerns with Magnolia, it was certainly not the smoking gun the Office of the Inspector General was suggesting was happening there," says Colin Miller, senior policy adviser for the California Charter Schools Association.
Young says she and her team were under the impression that they had put Magnolia's financial crisis behind them after the court settlement with LAUSD and the clean bill of health from the State Auditor. But LAUSD had other ideas. As it turned out, the district's inspector general had never stopped investigating Magnolia.
The latest round of the investigation has continued for nearly two years. On Sept. 9, 2015, LAUSD deputy inspector general Frank Cabibi and four investigators arrived at Magnolia's new headquarters. The foundation had not responded to the district's year-old request for documents, and Cabibi brought a letter signed by LAUSD inspector general Ken Bramlett, authorizing the team of investigators to collect the documents themselves.
Bramlett declined to comment for this story, citing the district's policy to keep confidential matters pertaining to ongoing investigations.
Says Young: "Mr. Cabibi said as far as he was concerned, my staff was all potential criminals for not responding to the request."
The proxy war between the Republic of Turkey and Fethullah Gülen came to Southern California in October 2015 in the form of Robert Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a globe-trotting international attorney at the law firm Amsterdam & Partners, with offices in Washington, D.C., and London. His firm's roster of past clients includes a former Thai prime minister, a Venezuelan banking magnate, a Nigerian cabinet minister, a pro-democracy reformer in Singapore and former Russian oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Amsterdam has an unusual practice built around what he once described to The American Lawyer magazine as "political litigation."
"We demonstrate the fiscal games being played with taxpayer money," Amsterdam tells L.A. Weekly. "I would think throughout the U.S., Gülen schools get about a half a billion dollars, and 10 to 20 percent is skimmed. So probably about $50 million to $100 million is finding its way into the coffers of the Gülen organization, at minimum. That's a lot of taxpayer money."
Last October, nearly a year before the coup attempt in Turkey, President Erdo0x011Fan hired Amsterdam to conduct a global investigation into the Gülen financial network, including a number of charter schools in the United States. The Republic of Turkey is paying Amsterdam's firm $50,000 a month, federal filings show.
Amsterdam has been collecting material from numerous local investigations of charter schools with Gülen ties in Ohio, Texas and California, trying to consolidate and connect them back to the Gülen organization. He has kept a busy itinerary of meetings and phone conversations with PR firms, news reporters, congressional staffers and even the head of the L.A. Board of Education, Steve Zimmer.
On Jan. 27, a senior counsel for Amsterdam & Partners named John Martin appeared at a hearing of the Fremont Unified School District's Board of Education, presenting a list of objections to Magnolia's application for a new charter that was under review. Before Martin spoke, Caprice Young told the board that Martin was "a representative of the Turkish government, who seems to believe that we are affiliated with a religious group with whom we are not affiliated." In his remarks, Martin referred to the findings of LAUSD'S audit.
Fremont Unified voted unanimously to deny Magnolia Science Academy Fremont's application.
On Feb. 16, Amsterdam's firm filed a formal complaint against Magnolia with the California Department of Education, requesting a full investigation into the financial practices of Magnolia's charter schools. Amsterdam's complaint accuses Magnolia of "suspected ties and illegal funneling of state and federal public funds to an organization of charter schools and other businesses headed by Fethullah Gülen."
The complaint, rehashing the findings of state and LAUSD investigations, came at a sensitive time for Magnolia, less than two months after it had filed applications for 10 new charters in seven school districts — Fremont, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim Union, Anaheim City, Oceanside and L.A.
On March 31, Magnolia published an open letter to the Turkish consul general in Los Angeles, Raife Gülru Gezer, protesting Turkey's support for what the letter calls "an aggressive campaign to undermine our 11 California public schools." Amsterdam then threw a jab at Young on Twitter: "Magnolia's @CapriceYoung, who on Jan. 13 flatly denied her school's connection to Gülen, is suddenly interested in Turkish politics."
To which Young replied, "Erdogan's [sic] pays @robertamsterdam $600k to attack my schools so I am suddenly interested."
The California Education Department launched a new investigation into Magnolia in August, according to a letter from the department — the third investigation in as many years.
Tensions between Magnolia and its accusers came to a head on Oct. 18, when the L.A. Unified School Board met to vote on the charter renewals for three Magnolia schools — Magnolia Science Academy 1 in Reseda, Magnolia Science Academy 2 in Van Nuys and Magnolia Science Academy 3 in Carson.
Prior to the meeting, hundreds of Magnolia parents, students and teachers crowded the sidewalk in front of LAUSD, wearing matching orange shirts and carrying signs that said "Stop School Closing" and "I Stand for Magnolia." Amsterdam trolled the Magnolia administrators online, tweeting a picture of a flier that Magnolia had apparently distributed to supporters with an offer of a free meal and round-trip transportation to the meeting. "This was sent to me by one of many disgusted Magnolia parents," Amsterdam wrote, "asking for help to protect [Magnolia's] racket."
The LAUSD inspector general's unfinished investigation loomed over the hearing. Magnolia supporters tell L.A. Weekly the findings, though still confidential, were referenced in support of the district evaluators' recommendation for denial of the charter renewals.
Officially, the board was deliberating Magnolia's failure to provide documents in a timely manner to yet another auditor. One of the terms of Magnolia's 2015 settlement with LAUSD required it to file monthly financial reports to a quasi-state agency called the Financial Crisis & Management Assistance Team. But according to the June 9 letter the district had received from FCMAT, Magnolia was not complying with requests for financial disclosures, and there was "no point" in continuing to try.
Based on this, the charter school evaluators recommended the board deny Magnolia's renewal petitions. Magnolia supporters argued that the ongoing financial oversight is a side issue, secondary to the schools' academic performance. But the board disagreed.
"We're not here to discuss the academic achievement of the schools," board member George McKenna said. "We're here to discuss the budget, disbursing of resources and financial reporting. You're not responsive to the agency that holds you accountable."
Several speakers at the public hearing alluded to the Republic of Turkey's allegation that Magnolia funneled public funds to the Gülen movement. Mustafa Sahin, the principal of Magnolia Science Academy 1, complained of "a dark cloud of accusation and suspicion over our heads that has nothing to do with education." Jerry Simmons, an attorney representing Magnolia, went further, accusing the school board of "discrimination based on nationalities of individuals serving on the board of Magnolia."
"Magnolia has been swept up in the issue," Simmons said. "My clients are accused publicly of bringing teachers connected with international terrorism and coups overseas."
The L.A. Unified board voted 6-0 to deny the renewals of the three charters. The Magnolia Public Schools appealed the denial to the L.A. County Board of Education last month. Should the county deny the applications on appeal, Young says Magnolia will appeal to the State Board of Education.
Says Young: "The county and state tend to look at charter renewals with more objectivity and more consistency with the law."
Yunus Avcu says a friend of his was watching TV in Turkey on Oct. 11 and happened upon the broadcast of a press conference in which Robert Amsterdam described a complaint he filed with Ohio authorities. The complaint alleged a $19 million real estate scam involving a network of 17 charter schools in the state with ties to Gülen. Avcu says the friend, a former physical education teacher at the Lotus School, convinced him to get in touch with Amsterdam.
Amsterdam says that ever since the airing of the press conference, he and his firm have been inundated with calls from whistleblowers — including Avcu. "We almost can't keep up," he says.
Amsterdam connected L.A. Weekly with Avcu, who says he came forward of his own volition after hearing about Amsterdam's press conference.
Avcu says he began working for the Accord Institute as a financial consultant to the Sonoran Science Academy in Phoenix in January 2010. He says the Accord Institute recruited him and sponsored his H1B visa while he was at Arizona State University earning a master's degree in finance, which he completed in 2011.
Avcu says that the Accord Institute reassigned him to manage the business office at the Lotus School for Excellence in Aurora, Colorado; he began working there in February 2013. He says he was never a member or follower of the Gülen movement in Turkey, and he supposes he was hired because he was one of the few Turks in Arizona with a finance degree. He describes the Gülen followers who recruited him for the job at Sonoran as fellow students at Arizona State, whom he met through a managerial internship at a hotel. "I was not really a fan of the movement while I was working in the organization," he says.
Avcu claims that when he arrived in Colorado, he became responsible for collecting the cash payments from teachers at the school and delivering the cash in person to the Accord Institute headquarters.
State law in Colorado requires that local schools post credit card statements online, in a downloadable format, for free public access. The Lotus School's credit card statements confirm that Avcu made regular flights to Orange County in 2013 and 2014.
"They have created a different system, a different payroll system in a different organization," Avcu says. "Whatever the government is paying to people, the people are not getting the money they deserve."
L.A. Weekly consulted with two legal experts, who said such charitable donations could fall under the definition of a tithe, as in the Mormon Church, but only if they were religiously motivated and donated voluntarily. Avcu says the donations were neither religious nor voluntary — that he and the other Turkish employees had to donate or lose their jobs.
Avcu says he soured on his job after the December 2013 Gülenist "judicial coup" in Turkey. He says the exuberant mood inside the Accord Institute as the Erdo0x011Fan government neared collapse made him suspect for the first time that the organization had real influence in Turkey. He left six months later and returned to Turkey. He says he tried alerting newspaper reporters in Colorado about the Gülen movement, but no one responded. He says he hasn't spoken to any investigators and hadn't told his story to anyone until he met with Amsterdam last month in Istanbul.
Fethullah Gülen is still living in Pennsylvania, but Turkey analysts predict the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will be more receptive than its predecessor to Turkey's calls for extradition. Trump's pick for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, recently endorsed extraditing Gülen to Turkey in an opinion piece for conservative news website The Hill.
Additionally, Trump immigration adviser Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, has written critically about the volume of H1B visa applications from the Gülen-linked schools at a time when there are more than enough American teachers willing and able to fulfill the duties.
Some say Gülen might not live to see extradition. He is in his late 70s, with diabetes. A quiet death in Pennsylvania wouldn't just put a stop to the noisy appeals for extradition; it might also give schools like Magnolia an opportunity to demonstrate their autonomy by outlasting Gülen.
Others aren't so sure.
"In the last two years they're getting in more trouble, [there are] more investigations, more people are focused on the schools," Avcu says. "So they're trying to get more open, trying to get more Americans involved and pushing Turkish people to work in outside companies. But the organization is not giving up control."
Amsterdam, however, says the damage to the schools is already done; he believes the failed coup attempt in Turkey will lead to the undoing of all charter schools with alleged ties to the Gülen movement:
"I believe the whole Gülen movement will implode," he says.
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