The watchdog Center for Public Integrity reported earlier this month that dozens of state legislators from throughout the country took trips to Turkey subsidized by a Turkish leader in exile in the United States.

Hawaii state Sen. J. Kalani English, the majority leader, was one of them.

“Just why exactly would 151 state legislators from places like Idaho and Texas accept subsidized junkets from a Turkish opposition group now blamed by that country’s government for an attempted coup last summer?” the center asked in a Feb. 9 report. “It’s puzzling that state legislators who rarely get involved in foreign policy matters have been courted with international trips.”

English, a Maui Democrat, said he was invited in 2013 as part of an intercultural dialogue program with the Republic of Turkey and the state of Hawaii “during the time when Fethullah Gulen was a close ally” of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Senator Kalani English Alexander Baldwin presser. 20 april 2016.
Sen. J. Kalani English travelled to Turkey at the behest of a group linked to a controversial cleric. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There were important discussions with the Ministry of Tourism & Culture, the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Turkish National Assembly, the Turkish Ministry of Economy and the American Embassy in Ankara,” English wrote in an email. “Part of the dialogue included increasing business and trade between Turkey and Hawaii and fostering the bonds between the Republic of Turkey and the state of Hawaii.”

Gulen and Erdogan had a falling out beginning in 2013 following a corruption scandal that year in Turkey. Followers of Gulen deny involvement in a 2016 attempted coup, but Turkey has asked the U.S. for his extradition.

The Center for Public Integrity analyzed annual financial disclosures from the lawmakers for the period from 2006 to 2015 concerning trips subsidized by more than two dozen nonprofits associated with the “Gulen movement.” It is described as a religious movement led by the Islamic cleric, who lives in Pennsylvania. 

English said he received approval for the trip from the Senate president, and that he filed information with the Senate clerk.

The airfare was covered by English’s authorized office allowance, he wrote, while the visit in Turkey “was covered by the hosts, the non-profit organization Pacifica Institute.”

The senator’s gifts disclosure statement for 2014 shows that Pacifica Institute paid for a hotel stay, meals and ground transportation in late 2013 valued at $1,500. The form does not indicate where the expenses were incurred.

English’s 2013 disclosure form shows another trip paid for by Pacifica Institute that May, this one for airfare, hotel and ground transportation costing $1,050. A travel destination is not identified. 

The senator did not address in his email that the institute appeared to have paid for two trips.

Pacific Institute’s website says it is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization established in 2003 “by a group of dedicated volunteers” in the San Fernando Valley who want to “do good for the community they live in.”

It further explains:

In all these activities, Pacifica Institute aligns with the ideas of the transnational social movement called Hizmet, which means “service” in Turkish. The movement finds its meaning in the principle that service to humanity – regardless of one’s faith, tradition, gender, or ethnicity. The Hizmet Movement is active in almost all the countries around the world and works diligently in the areas of education, and interfaith dialogue, and aid organization.

Gulen and his teachings are cited on Pacifica Institute’s website as the group’s inspiration.

The Center for Public Integrity report suggests the junkets were intended to curry favor with Gulen, his supporters and related organizations.

The Guardian, an online news organization, reported in July that Hizmet is “a hodgepodge that at times has appeared cultish – spawning think tanks, businesses, schools and publications across the globe, while building up substantial wealth and influence in the process.”

The news site added, “According to some reports, 10 percent of the Turkish population is estimated to support Hizmet.”

The Center for Public Integrity said that, since 2011, state lawmakers in more that 23 states have introduced resolutions “honoring Turkey or Turkish Americans, some of which specifically praised Gulen or Gulen-movement organizations.”

Regarding the junkets, the center report stated:

It’s especially surprising for the invitations to come from a powerful religious movement that until recently ran media outlets and a bank before falling out with the government in Turkey, a pivotal U.S. ally that serves as the gateway to the Middle East.

English declined to comment on the center’s report.

About a dozen resolutions have been introduced in the Hawaii House and Senate since 2006 involving Turkey. The non-binding measures focus on matters such as ties with Istanbul and protecting religious rights.

None of the resolutions was sponsored by English.

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