MANHATTAN (CN) – Two years have passed since former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pressed both President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to free a gold trader charged in America’s biggest Iran money-laundering conspiracy to date.
On Tuesday, amid new reports that Trump pressured a former secretary of state to terminate Reza Zarrab’s case, U.S. prosecutors indicted Halkbank, a Turkish state-run bank at the center of that conspiracy.
The charges could leave the Turkish government with a multibillion-dollar fine at a time that the Trump administration is facing bipartisan outrage into its assault of the United States’ erstwhile Kurdish allies in Syria.
“Halkbank’s systemic participation in the illicit movement of billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil revenue was designed and executed by senior bank officials,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement.
“The bank’s audacious conduct was supported and protected by high-ranking Turkish government officials, some of whom received millions of dollars in bribes to promote and protect the scheme,” added Berman, who signed the 45-page indictment.
Stemming from a 2013 corruption investigation in Turkey, Halkbank case has a thicket of ties to both Trump and Erdogan’s inner circles. Zarrab, who had once been a close Erdogan ally, testified two years ago that the Turkish president ordered the sanctions-busting trades and said he bribed multiple high-ranking ministers of his ruling Justice and Development Party.
“Over the course of 2012 and 2013, Zarrab paid Caglayan bribes totaling at least approximately $70 million in U.S. dollars, Euro, and Turkish lira, as well as luxury watches and other items, in exchange for Caglayan’s support of the gold export scheme’s execution,” the indictment against Halkbank states.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman unsealed records meanwhile in 2017 showing how Giuliani pursued shadow diplomacy with Erdogan as Zarrab’s attorney to spring his client out of prison. Giuliani revealed he mulled a prisoner swap for a U.S. pastor Turkey had been holding: Andrew Brunson.
“I am still stunned by the fact that Rudy was hired to be – and he very actively pursued – being the ‘go between’ between President Trump and Turkey’s President Erdogan in an unprecedented effort to terminate this federal criminal case in the middle of the case,” Berman told Courthouse News in an exclusive June 2018 interview.
Reporting last week by Bloomberg, later matched by The New York Times and The Washington Post, stated that Trump had a direct hand in efforts to terminate the case in an Oval Office meeting with Giuliani, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
A former CEO of Exxon, Tillerson was reportedly “unsettled” by the request to free Zarrab, who later pleaded guilty to having secretly funneled assets from the National Iranian Oil Company through Halkbank. Zarrab exchanged that money into tons of gold, which he then had couriered and sold in Dubai to cleanse the assets for the global economy.
The undated indictment against Halkbank was released today with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scheduled to participate in a Thursday delegation to Turkey about the its invasion into northern Syria.
Council on Foreign Relations expert Steven Cook found the timing suggestive: “They’re turning the screws on Turkey,” he said.
Long before Trump called his criminal investigation a “coup attempt” by the “deep state,” Erdogan used the same rhetoric to describe the Halkbank case that threatened his hold onto power.
“It will be seen as a conspiracy on the part of the United States to wreck the Turkish economy,” Cook said, referring to Trump’s recent threats to do just that.
“My sense is, Erdogan can use that to his political advantage,” he added.
Zarrab ultimately testified against Halkbank manager Hakan Atilla, who was sentenced to 32 months in prison. Atilla received a hero’s reception upon his release from prison this year, being photographed with Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.
Before Atilla’s sentencing, European Council on Foreign Relations expert Asli Aydintasbas warned a big fine for Halkbank could be disastrous.
“So, if we’re talking about $1 or $2 billion, $3 billion, I think the markets have prepared for something like that,” she told Courthouse News in May 2018. “But if we’re talking about $8, $9, $10 [billion], that would send shockwaves through the Turkish economy at a time when things are looking very, very fragile, particularly in terms of liquidity.”
More than a year passed since then without incident, until an extraordinarily fraught time in U.S.-Turkish relations.
“After months and months and months of quiet, the timing does seem to be not so much a coincidence,” Cook said.
Citing Foreign Agents Registration Act records, the watchdog Open Secrets noted that Halkbank, a Turkish government-owned institution, paid more than $2 million to Ballard Partners, a top political fundraiser to the Trump campaign, to lobby the State Department and other U.S. government entities.