Republic of Turkey Targets Houston-Based Charter School

Lawyers working for the Turkish government plan to file a complaint with the Texas Education Agency next week against Houston-based Harmony Public Schools, alleging financial malfeasance and other misconduct, school officials said.

Advocates showed their support for charter schools during an April 29, 2015, rally at the Texas Capitol.

Lawyers working for the Turkish government plan to file a complaint with the Texas Education Agency next week against Houston-based Harmony Public Schools, alleging financial malfeasance and other misconduct, school officials said.

The Republic of Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is waging a well-documented war against critics, hired London-based Amsterdam & Partners last fall “to conduct a global investigation into the activities of the organization led by moderate Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen,” according to the firm's website. Gulen is a reclusive Turkish expatriate living in Pennsylvania whom news reports have linked to Harmony and other U.S. charter schools. Harmony, which focuses on science and math education, is the second-largest charter network in the United States and the largest in Texas. It operates 46 schools here where nearly 31,000 students are enrolled.

Amsterdam filed a civil lawsuit against Gulen in December in U.S. district court accusing him of being a terrorist and building a "parallel structure" within the police and judiciary to topple the government, according to a Reuters report. In March, Turkish authorities issued an arrest warrant for Gulen and his brother. 

Harmony officials have vehemently denied any connection to Gulen and say the complaint, which they learned about by accident, is a politically motivated attack by Erdogan following a June 2015 election in which his party lost its 13-year majority control.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) regained its hold on parliament in a subsequent vote, but Harmony officials note that Erdogan’s party received little support in the summer election among Turkish Americans who voted absentee.

“It’s a witch hunt,” said Soner Tarim, Harmony’s CEO.

An Amsterdam & Associates lawyer, John Martin, on Thursday confirmed the firm's plans to file a complaint with the state against Harmony but declined to immediately offer further details. The firm has enlisted the help of longtime Austin lobbyist and Republican political consultant Jim Arnold, who registered as an agent for the Turkish government last month. Arnold did not respond to calls or an email requesting comment. 

In February, the firm filed a complaint with the California Department of Education urging the agency to conduct an investigation into the financial practices of the Magnolia Public Schools, a charter school network that operates 11 schools in California. 

Harmony came under fire about five years ago when the New York Times and 60 Minutes ran pieces exploring possible connections between the rapidly growing charter school network and Gulen, who reportedly encourages his followers to promote science and math education.

Many of the school's founders — a group of Turkish professors and businessmen — are Gulen followers, according to the reports, which detail the network’s overwhelming use of Turkish teachers and Turkish-owned contractors and raise questions about fair hiring and bidding practices.

Harmony has been the subject of several related federal and state investigations and other audits, including by the Texas Education Agency.  

But Tarim, the Harmony CEO and co-founder, noted that none of them has led to charges or sanctions and that the school has only grown in popularity, with an annual waiting list of about 30,000. He said the private market has backed eight bond sales for the school, requiring a close look at its financials. Harmony has also recently received a major grant under an Obama Administration program and has a Triple-A bond rating, he said. 

“It clearly indicates the quality, efficiency of our organization,” he said. "We are a transparent organization."

Some conservative activist groups in Texas, including the Eagle Forum, have targeted Harmony, saying its schools use taxpayer dollars to promote Islam and anti-American ideology.

Harmony officials and supporters, which include the Texas Charter Schools Association, have vigorously denied the claim and point to the schools' popularity and success in the state.

Tarim said Harmony has no connection to Gulen and does not teach Islam. 

"I don’t want our state legislators to be influenced or controlled by another country that has minimized respect to human rights and disrespected freedom of speech," he said, citing Erdogan's efforts to punish political cartoonists for drawings critiquing him. 

Erdogan also has gone after journalists, with Turkish reporters being investigated and put on trial and foreign ones harassed and deported, according to a BBC report this month.

Harmony officials say they found out about Amsterdam’s complaint by accident this week when one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s education policy advisers copied one of the school’s public relations consultants on an email reply to Arnold, the Austin lobbyist. In the original message, Arnold asked a different Abbott adviser if the adviser could meet with him and his client, Amsterdam & Partners, “who represents the Republic of Turkey," to discuss the 30-page complaint.

It “will outline a series of allegations concerning Harmony’s financial operations as well as other alleged misconduct,” he wrote, according to a copy of the email provided by Harmony.

“Because of the size of Harmony, the amount of state funding they receive, and the seriousness of the allegations we will make in the complaint, we are meeting with key education officials to discuss the complaint in detail prior to filing it,” he added.

A spokesman for the governor's office, John Wittman, said he could not confirm the email and did not immediately respond to a question about whether Abbott's advisers met or scheduled a meeting with Arnold or Amsterdam.

Arnold worked in national politics before managing former Gov. Rick Perry’s successful campaign for lieutenant governor in 1998. He has worked for more than 20 years as a “volunteer trainer” with the International Republican Institute “in emerging democracies around the world, most recently working with Syrian pro-democracy advocates in Turkey,” according to his website.

Harmony officials say they were familiar with Amsterdam because the school received a voluminous, 90-part open records request from the firm in November asking for everything from “documents sufficient to identify each and every employee” to all communications between Harmony and multiple state and federal agencies.

The school estimates the cost of producing the records to be $690,000, a charge it says Amsterdam is disputing with the Texas attorney general's office.

Disclosure: Harmony Public Schools and Jim Arnold have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today