WASHINGTON — It was the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration and Turkey’s top diplomat was looking to make inroads with the new administration.
At Washington’s Watergate Hotel, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, sat down with Brian Ballard, a well-connected lobbyist serving as vice chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee.
Also at the table were the two men who set up the meeting: Mübariz Mansimov, a Turkish-Azerbaijani shipping magnate now in a Turkish jail facing terrorism charges, and Lev Parnas, a colorful Florida businessman whose backchannel dealings in Ukraine would, two years later, feature prominently in President Trump’s impeachment.
The Jan. 19, 2017, meeting, which has never before been disclosed, marked the start of Turkey’s ambitious lobbying of the Trump administration that involved back-channels, Russian-linked oligarchs and Parnas, a key figure in the Ukraine case, according to an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Courthouse News Service and NBC News.
Parnas and his former associate Igor Fruman made headlines for their role in the Ukraine affair and now face federal charges that they funneled illegal campaign contributions to Republican Party causes. Both men have pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors filed additional charges Thursday against Parnas, alleging he misled investors in his company. Parnas has denied the charges.
President Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, soon developed a warm relationship, according to Trump, resulting in decisions by the U.S. president that recast American foreign policy on Syria, causing consternation among U.S. allies and provoking the resignation of Trump’s defense secretary, ret. Gen. James Mattis.
"I get along very well with Erdoğan, even though you're not supposed to because everyone says what a horrible guy, but for me it works out good," Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in a recently released recorded conversation featured in the new book "Rage."
Turkey’s sway with Trump was on display last October. After a phone call with Erdoğan, Trump abruptly announced he was greenlighting a Turkish incursion in northern Syria. The chaotic U.S. troop withdrawal that resulted from that decision was criticized across the political spectrum, and many saw it as an abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies.
Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in his recent memoir that the two men had a "bromance," even though Erdogan, an Islamist, appeared at odds with much of America’s agenda.
Behind the rapport was a wider effort by Turkey to exert influence with the Trump administration via an international network of businessmen and oligarchs, several of whom are linked to former Soviet republics, according to the investigation. Two are facing criminal charges in the United States and one in Turkey.
The reporting for this story is based on a review of court records, government documents and financial statements, as well as a 90-minute video interview with Parnas, who is awaiting trial on federal campaign finance charges.
The Watergate lunch eventually led to multi-million-dollar contracts for Ballard Partners to lobby on behalf of Turkey and Erdoğan in the U.S., according to foreign lobbying contracts filed with the Justice Department.
The 2017 meal at the Watergate Hotel was recounted by Parnas, who also shared text messages with other participants setting up the lunch. Ballard Partners acknowledged the meeting and says it was an introductory, get-to-know-you meeting.
"There was a lot of bodyguards, Turkish bodyguards," Parnas said, recounting the meeting. "It was in a little restaurant," adding that Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu "was sitting in the restaurant with a couple of other Turkish dignitaries."
"Mübariz introduced Brian Ballard as ‘Trump’s number one guy,’" Parnas said of the top Trump fundraiser whom Politico dubbed "The Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington."
The lobbying contracts with Ballard Partners were established with the help of both Parnas and the shipping tycoon Mansimov, as well as Farkhad Akhmedov, who has since been listed by the U.S. Treasury as a Russian oligarch closely tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Parnas, and to screen shots of his text messages with Mansimov and Akhemdov. Ballard Partners denied that Akhmedov played any role in the Azerbaijan lobbying contract.
Foreign lobbying records show that Ballard Partners’ contracts eventually included a $125,000-per-month deal for the firm to represent Halkbank, a Turkish state bank being prosecuted in the U.S. for fraud, money laundering and violating sanctions on Iran, public records show.
According to Bolton and congressional investigators, Trump has tried to discourage the Halkbank prosecution. Bolton says in his book that he was a witness to Trump more than once promising Erdoğan to intervene in the case and that federal prosecutors would soon be more amenable to his wishes.
Members of Congress are investigating the issue and have cited Bolton’s account as well as statements from Treasury officials saying Trump had asked Attorney General William Barr to handle the concerns raised by Erdoğan. In 2018, Erdoğan said publicly that he had asked Trump to intervene in the case and that talks were underway with U.S. officials.
The White House has denied the Halkbank allegations and declined to comment for this story. The bank has denied the charges and filed a motion to dismiss.
The Halkbank case, which involved laundering billions of dollars out of Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions, is based in part on testimony from a Turkish-Iranian gold trader, who alleged that Erdoğan ordered illicit trade with Iran when he was prime minister. Erdoğan has rejected the allegations and insisted Turkey did not violate the U.S. embargo.
"Turkish officials were fast learners when it came to dealing with the Trump administration," said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who has pushed the White House for more information about how the Halkbank case was handled.
"They hired a favored Republican lobbyist right out of the gate, and pulled out all the stops in their efforts to avoid sanctions for Turkish state-owned Halkbank. Their work paid off, with President Trump doing President Erdoğan’s bidding in an effort to get Halkbank off the hook for its role in the largest sanctions evasion scheme in U.S. history. It’s corruption, plain and simple."
Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., Serdar Kılıç, said the Ballard Partners contract was one of many avenues the government used to further relations with the United States, and that Ankara’s lobbying arrangements were legal and transparent.
"Turkey has been working with a multitude of U.S. lobbying firms for decades. Contracts are naturally being constantly re-evaluated according to evolving needs and requirements," Kılıç said. "Turkey’s dealings with U.S. lobbying firms have always been in total agreement with U.S. legal requirements."
Ballard Partners paid Parnas $45,000 for setting up the deals with Turkey, bank statements reviewed by reporters for this story show.
Ballard Partners acknowledged the payment, but discounted Parnas’s role in securing the contracts. Turkey selected the firm for its expertise, the company said, citing one of its partners, Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman from Florida whose "knowledge and understanding of the region is deep and rare."
Mansimov, the shipping magnate, was at the time also a business associate of Lev Aslan Derrmen, an Armenian-American recently convicted of working with members of a Utah polygamist sect in a billion-dollar tax credit fraud scheme. A federal agent has alleged in court that Dermen and his accomplices were linked to Erdoğan and had bought the protection of Turkey’s government.
Well-connected to Erdoğan
Parnas said his introduction to shipping tycoon Mansimov came via another figure at the center of the Ukraine impeachment case, Belarusian-born Florida businessman Igor Fruman, who had worked with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on efforts to find political dirt on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his family.
Parnas said the encounter with Mansimov happened on Dec. 5, 2016, during a night at the Buddha-Bar, a flashy nightclub Fruman owned in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
Born in Soviet-era Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn, Parnas was at the time a relatively unknown businessman with a string of failed ventures and unpaid debts. During the 2016 campaign, Parnas had managed to raise enough money to become a major donor to pro-Trump causes. When Trump won in November 2016, Parnas found himself with an inside track to the White House.
According to Parnas, his conversation with Mansimov at Buddha-Bar turned to his relationship with Brian Ballard, who was already seen as an influential power broker in Trump’s world. That October, Parnas had met Ballard at a Florida function for V.I.P. Trump donors, where the two men "clicked," he said. Mansimov wanted an introduction.
A photograph from the night out in Kyiv shows the men in high spirits and arm in arm. According to Parnas, Mansimov touted his personal links to Erdoğan, including his reported gift of a $25 million oil tanker to the Turkish president’s family.
"He used to brag that he was very well connected to Erdoğan," Parnas said.
Mansimov did not respond to written requests sent to an executive at his company.
Mansimov now sits in a Turkish jail, facing what he says are trumped up charges of involvement with Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in the U.S. who Erdoğan’s government claims is behind a 2016 coup attempt. Members of Gülen’s movement, formerly allied with Erdoğan’s government, are now accused of belonging to a terrorist organization and hunted by Turkey.
But on that winter night in Kyiv, Mansimov was still an influential figure. His company, Palmali, was a major shipper of oil across the Black Sea, and he enjoyed high-level connections in Turkey, Russia, and his native Azerbaijan.
Parnas said he bonded with Mansimov on their evening out and they later attended a string of V.I.P. inauguration balls around Washington as Trump prepared to assume the presidency.
‘It wasn’t a bad gig’
After the inauguration, Parnas says Mansimov gave him a new assignment related to Turkey: spend time entertaining the Russian oligarch Akhmedov, who had just docked his superyacht, the Luna, at a mooring in South Florida.
"It wasn’t a bad gig," Parnas recalled with a laugh. "I mean, 70 people on staff, four chefs, every toy in the book." The yacht is listed in directories at 377 feet.
Like Mansimov, Akhmedov was born in Azerbaijan. But unlike Akhmedov, he rose in Russia to become a top Kremlin-linked oligarch. The Treasury Department later included him on a 2017 list of top oligarchs tied to President Vladimir Putin.
Akhmedov was keen on cultivating ties with Ballard for Turkey as well as for his native Azerbaijan, according to Parnas. Azerbajian’s government would later hire Ballard Partners. According to Parnas, he and Ballard introduced Akhmedov to Steve Wynn, a casino billionaire and G.O.P. megadonor.
Parnas said he made that introduction at a Republican National Committee retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 4. A photo obtained by reporters shows the three men embracing each other at the event. Trump had been there the day before, attending the first day of the retreat.
Akhmedov did not respond to requests for comment.
Even though Parnas had tried to make himself useful, he said he was soon iced out of the Turkey-Ballard relationship.
On May 11, 2017 — just days before an incident in which Erdoğan’s bodyguards beat protesters on a Washington street — Ballard Partners signed its first Turkey-related lobbying contract, with the Turkish government. The second contract, with Halkbank, was signed in August. Combined, the two contracts brought in more than $4 million, according to foreign lobbying records with the Justice Department.
Parnas only learned that Ballard Partners and Turkey had signed a deal after reading a May 2017 article in Politico. A WhatsApp message seen by reporters showed that Parnas questioned Ballard and another of his employees about it in early June. He believed he was due part of the contract because he had helped open the door to the introductions.
Parnas said that Ballard attempted to minimize his role in setting up the contracts. "We got into a heated argument."
Bank records obtained by reporters show Ballard’s lobbying firm, Ballard Partners, made two payments of $22,500 each to Parnas in 2018, over a year after he had helped set up the deal.
Ballard Partners said Parnas was compensated in a "timely manner," and said his payment was a finder's fee for securing Turkey as a client.
Ballard Partners terminated the lobbying contract with the Turkish government on Nov. 15, 2018, a few days after the Trump administration gave sanctions relief letting Erdogan’s regime purchase oil from Iran. The firm’s Halkbank contract was terminated last October, after the bank was indicted by U.S. federal prosecutors.
Turkey also explored other routes to influence the Trump administration.
During the 2016 presidential campaign Turkey sought out Trump adviser Mike Flynn to help advance Erdoğan’s agenda, and paid more than $500,000 in Turkish government money to Flynn’s consultancy. The Turkish government wanted Flynn's help in winning the extradition of Erdoğan's rival, Gülen, from the U.S. On Election Day 2016, Flynn published an opinion piece in The Hill criticizing Gülen.
Flynn's lobbying partner, Bijan Kian, was later charged with illegally acting as an unregistered agent for Turkey and for lobbying the U.S. for Gülen's extradition. He was found guilty at trial but his conviction was overturned by a judge, who said there was insufficient evidence to convict.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey told the Wall Street Journal he was at September 2016 meeting with Flynn and two Turkish ministers at which the ministers discussed kidnapping Gülen from his home in Pennsylvania and "whisking" him to Turkey to face charges. Flynn has denied the report.
Flynn would briefly serve as Trump's first national security adviser before he was forced to resign on Feb. 13, 2017, for lying about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
Records filed under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act show that Turkey’s government and related agencies spent more than $7.8 million on five U.S. lobbying firms in 2018 alone. Apart from Ballard Partners, another beneficiary has been the Washington lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs.
Mercury has contracts with Turkey’s government and the Turkish-U.S. Business Council. The council is now headed by Mehmet Ali Yalçındag, a Turkish businessman who partnered with the U.S. president in a Trump Towers Istanbul project. Trump described the development in 2015, without elaborating, as a "little conflict of interest."