‘Schmidt’s Got a Problem’: House Ethics Panel Set to Investigate Rep’s Ties with Turkey

‘Schmidt’s Got a Problem’: House Ethics Panel Set to Investigate Rep’s Ties with Turkey

“I think she’s got a pretty substantial problem on her hands right now, and frankly I feel the Turkish Coalition of America’s got a little bit of a problem as well too,” said Ohio Democrat David Krikorian in a phone interview with the Armenian Weekly. He was referring to reports of a recently launched investigation by the House Office of Congressional Ethics’ (OCE) of Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), who is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of free legal services from the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund (TALDF).

“I did file complaints [with the OCE]. Well, I should say one complaint back in July [2010], and I sent some supplementary information this past January that was a result of the current legal proceeding that the Congresswoman filed against me,” Krikorian confirmed to the Weekly.

In his complaint, Krikorian pointed out that Schmidt’s attorney, Bruce Fein, had admitted to having provided free legal services to the Congresswoman during court proceedings in August 2009. Fein is a TALDF attorney and resident scholar at the Turkish Coalition of America. In 2009, he represented Schmidt before the Ohio Elections Commission, alleging that during his 2008 election campaign against Schmidt, Krikorian made damaging statements by accusing Schmidt of receiving “blood money” from Turkish Political Action Committees for denying the Armenian Genocide.

Fein, who is not an attorney in the state of Ohio, had to file a pro hoc vice motion to be allowed to practice law in the state. Krikorian’s attorneys tried to block that motion, on the grounds that Fein could be a material witness in the case. “Through the course of the back and forth, them seeking the pro hoc vice motion and us opposing it, basically Bruce Fein admits that this is all about the Turkish Coalition of America. Basically that they’re using Schmidt as a springboard to push their bizarre foreign policy agenda, which is the denial of the Armenian Genocide.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported on the issue in August 2010 and noted that Fein made a statement under oath in August 2009, suggesting that the TALDF would pick up Schmidt’s bill. “When asked whether TALDF had charged the Schmidt campaign any money for representation, Fein said: ‘The answer is no. We stated that we would do this and we would not charge them legal fees.’”

On January 26, 2011, Krikorian sent a second letter to the OCE, providing additional information. That letter, he says, was essentially “a compilation of all the media reports” revealing that Schmidt contradicted herself about having set up a legal expense fund. In the summer, Schmidt had claimed she had approval to set up the fund; come Fall, her story had changed to: we’re waiting approval for it. As of last week, she was still awaiting approval.

“I’m not sure if they knew about the new information that I sent in prior to opening up the investigation. I think it’s pretty safe to say that they obviously knew about the [first letter],” Krikorian said.

It has been proposed that Schmidt’s legal expenses could well be between $200,000 and $500,000, services she has not been billed for, sources close to the case say.

During her 2008 campaign, Schmidt received almost $20,000 in campaign contributions from donors with traditional Turkish surnames. In 2009, after filing the OEC complaint against Krikorian, Schmidt traveled to Turkey, courtesy of the TCA, and an editorial she authored appeared in Today’s Zaman a month later, sources report.

Krikorian explains

Krikorian says Schmidt keeps changing her story about whether she received approval to set up a legal expense fund. Approval for such a fund are granted when “the legal expenses arise in connection with: the individual’s candidacy for or election to federal office; the individual’s official duties or position in Congress…; a criminal prosecution; or a civil matter bearing on the individual’s reputation or fitness for office,” according to a memorandum from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics Committee).

“So she says that she got approval for it but she won’t show anyone the letter that says she has approval for it,” he said. “If the Standards Committee gives you approval to set up a Legal Trust, you have to establish it, and name a trustee within seven days. Her changing story is now getting some exposure as that—it’s a changing story.”

In November, Krikorian also sent a letter to the chief legal counsel of the Ethics Committee, the legal counsel for the Ranking Republican member Jo Bonner, as well as the legal counsel for the Ranking Democratic Chair Zoe Lofgren.

“I sent the letter to them, basically stating that it’s been reported… that Schmidt is requesting the ability to set up a Legal Expense Trust. I just detailed out why she shouldn’t be allowed to set up a Legal Expense Trust, because she’s the attacker. She’s the plaintiff. She’s coming after me,” said Krikorian.

Although the “blood money” matter was settled by the Ohio Elections Commission which, in a mixed decision, handed Krikorian a written reprimand, Schmidt chose to further pursue the matter. In 2010, she filed a lawsuit in Clement County Common Pleas Court against Krikorian for that same “blood money” statement, seeking $6.8 million in compensation.

“There are specific rules as to why you can set up a Legal Expense Trust. This action, this defamation action that she brought against me did not appear to fit into the established guidelines for why a member of the U.S. House of Representatives should have a Legal Expense Trust.”

Accepting free legal services would be a violation of Federal Election Commission and House rules. If the OCE deems that there is enough evidence, it could send the case to the House Ethics Committee for further investigation. Otherwise, it will be dismissed. If, however, it is determined that Schmidt engaged in illegal activity, she will face a reprimand at best, and expulsion at worst.

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman calls for Schmidt’s removal from Foreign Affairs Committee

Meanwhile, on February 16, Ohio Democratic party Chairman Chris Redfern called on House Speaker John Boehner to remove Schmidt from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “I am formally calling on you to immediately remove Representative Schmidt from the committee and discontinue her service on the committee until this important matter is resolved,” he wrote in a letter addressed to Boehner.

Trouble for TCA?

In recent years the TCA and the TALDF, which operate from the same office, have been involved in a number of lawsuits that have to do with the Armenian Genocide issue.

“Here you have a supposedly 501c3 charitable organization [the TCA] that’s directly intervening in a campaign. That’s strictly prohibited from an IRS law standpoint. And I think that the Turkish Coalition of America may have opened itself up for an investigation into potential violations of the IRS tax code,” Krikorian told the Weekly. “They could quite possibly be violating the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act, the Lobbying Disclosure Act, and the Federal Elections Commission’s Rules and Regulations that pertain to contributions to federal candidates.”

“The Turkish Coalition of America, in my opinion, has got some potentially serious problems on their hands.”

Recently, TCA, along with freshman student Sinan Cingilli, launched a defamation suit against the University of Minnesota, its President Robert Bruininks, and Bruno Chaouat, the Director of the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS). TCA’s website was listed as an “Unreliable Website”—because of Genocide denial—on the CHGS’ site. Bruce Fein is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

In 2008, Fein was a legal counsel of Guenter Lewy who filed a defamation suit against the Southern Poverty Law Center, and its editor David Holthouse for suggesting that Lewy had been financially rewarded for denying the Armenian Genocide.

By Nanore Barsoumian

www.armenianweekly.com