Turkish First Lady’s Charity Got Millions From Accused Fraudster

Reza Zarrab

Reza Zarrab.

Photographer: Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • Educational charity received $4.65 million, U.S. filing says
  • Objection to Zarrab bail request highlights impunity in Turkey

The Iranian-Turkish gold trader accused by U.S. prosecutors of breaching American sanctions on Iran and bribing Turkish government officials donated $4.65 million to a charity founded by the wife of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. court filings show.

Reza Zarrab, 33, who was arrested March 21 in Florida and is being held in American jails pending trial, revealed in his bail application that he made donations since 2013 to Emine Erdogan’s Togem-Der, according to the filing Wednesday by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The Istanbul-based non-profit focuses on early detection and education for the mentally disabled and provides tuition support for low-income families.

U.S. prosecutors alleged in a court filing on Wednesday that Zarrab’s donations to the first lady’s charity provide evidence of his close ties to the president. The document says that Zarrab’s connections at the highest levels of government led to the "wholesale reorganization of the Turkish prosecutor’s office and police department," allegedly helping to derail a Turkish investigation into him and senior government officials for graft two years ago.

No Comment

Togem-Der said on Thursday that only its chairwoman, Saadet Gulbaran, could respond to requests for comment and that she wasn’t immediately available. Gulbaran is Emine Erdogan’s aunt. A press adviser for the Turkish presidency didn’t respond to requests for comment sent by text message late on Wednesday and didn’t answer calls on Thursday.

Donations made by Zarrab to Togem-Der included $850,000 in 2013, around $1 million in 2014 and $2.3 million this year, according to the application for bail filed by Zarrab’s attorneys at Brafman & Associates, P.C. After attending a Togem-Der conference in Istanbul in 2012, Zarrab "pledged to provide financial assistance to that organization on a monthly basis," it said. The bail request highlighted donations by the defendant to various charitable organizations that totaled more than $5 million.

According to a report in Aksam newspaper on Dec. 26, 2013, days after Zarrab was detained in Istanbul, Erdogan described him as a philanthropist whose work was beneficial to Turkey’s economy. Zarrab was released in February and charges were dropped following a reorganization of the judiciary in the wake of the scandal.

Zarrab’s Defense

In the U.S., Zarrab is being accused with two others of helping the Iranian government launder hundreds of millions of dollars and evade U.S. sanctions, defrauding American banks in the process. He denies the charges: "Work done by Mr. Zarrab’s counsel thus far provides ample basis for belief that the charges are ill-founded and that the government will not prevail at trial," his lawyers said in his bail application. 

Zarrab’s legal team requested that he be released from jail in New York with a $50 million bond and conditions designed to assure the court that he would appear for trial. The bond would be secured by $10 million in cash, according to the filing. The lawyers cited risks to the reputation of Zarrab’s celebrity wife, Turkish pop star Ebru Gundes, as a deterrent to his fleeing.

Manhattan Apartment

The U.S. Attorney’s office rejected such arguments.

"It fundamentally amounts to the defendant’s potentially sacrificing a sum of money that he can easily do without, or even recoup in short order, and an offer to build a personal jail for himself in an apartment in Manhattan," the prosecutor’s response said.

Zarrab’s attorney, Ben Brafman, said by e-mail that Zarrab’s defense would "file a vigorous reply memorandum ‎fully addressing all of the issues the govt has raised.”

Togem-Der’s website, www.togemder.org.tr, couldn’t be accessed on Thursday. The site was abruptly taken down earlier this week after reports of Zarrab’s donations first emerged, according to local media.

Beyhan Nilser Bagis, the wife of former EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis, who served in that position until he resigned following the corruption scandal in 2013, is on the charity’s board of directors, according to the prosecutor’s filing. Bagis is also alleged to have received bribes from Zarrab, it says.

Egemen Bagis said in a parliament probe in Nov. 2014 that he had exchanged gifts such as chocolates and ties with Zarrab, but denied allegations that some chocolate boxes were stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars worth of cash. Bagis didn’t respond to requests for comment sent by e-mail on Wednesday.

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