The FBI and other U.S. federal agencies have been investigating whether a Turkish religious community operating hundreds of schools worldwide is involved in visa fraud to bring teachers from Turkey to the United States.
The claim was made in a broad analysis by the Philadelphia Enquirer on religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who the paper describes as “a major Islamic political figure in Turkey,” and the more than 120 charter schools in the United States that are linked to his movement.
“Religious scholars consider the Gülen strain of Islam moderate, and the investigation has no link to terrorism. Rather, it [the investigation] is focused on whether hundreds of Turkish teachers, administrators and other staffers employed under the ‘H1B visa program’ are misusing taxpayer money,” the newspaper wrote. H1B visas are meant to be reserved for workers with highly specialized skill sets.
The charter schools are funded with millions of taxpayer dollars, according to the daily. “Truebright [Science Academy in Pennsylvania] alone receives more than $3 million from the Philadelphia School District for its 348 pupils,” said the newspaper.
The Departments of Labor and Education are also involved in investigating the claims of kickbacks to the Muslim movement founded by Gülen, known as “Hizmet” (Service), according to the paper.
Gülen, who has been living in the United States since 1999, is a Turkish religious leader whose movement is considered one of the strongest fronts in the civilian struggle for power in Turkey, especially because of its influence over state structures in the country.
Worldwide, the Gülen movement is known mostly for the schools it has established in Turkey and in more than 80 countries.
Federal officials declined to comment on the nationwide inquiry, which is being coordinated by prosecutors in Pennsylvania’s Middle District in Scranton, the Philadelphia Enquirer wrote. A former leader of the parents’ group at a Gülen-founded charter school in State College, Pennsylvania, confirmed that federal authorities had interviewed her.
Although many have posited links between the Gülen movement and the charity schools around the world, followers deny the links.
The newspaper wrote that Bekir Aksoy, who acts as Gülen's spokesman, said last Friday that he knew nothing about charter schools or an investigation.
Gülen schools were among the nation's largest users of the H1B visas, the newspaper said. In 2009, the schools received government approvals for 684 visas – more than Google Inc. (440) but fewer than technology powerhouse Intel Corp. (1,203).
The newspaper drew attention to the fact that the visas were used to attract foreign workers with math, science, and technology skills to jobs for which there are shortages of qualified American workers. Officials at some of the charter schools, which specialize in math and science, have said they needed to fill teaching spots with Turks, according to parents and former staffers.
School parents described “how uncertified teachers on H1B visas were moved from one charter school to another when their ‘emergency’ teaching credentials expired and told of a pattern of sudden turnovers of Turkish business managers, administrators and board members,” according to the daily.
“The charter school application that Truebright filed with the Philadelphia School District in 2005 mentioned that its founders helped start similar schools in Ohio, California and Paterson, N.J.”, said the newspaper.
Ohio, California, and Texas have the largest numbers of Gülen-related schools. Ohio has 19, which are operated by Concept Schools Inc., and most are known as Horizon Science Academies. There are 14 in California operated by the Magnolia Foundation. Texas has 33 known as Harmony schools, run by the Cosmos Foundation.
“In their investigation, federal authorities have obtained copies of several emails that indicate the charter schools are tied to Hizmet and may be controlled by it,” the newspaper said.
New York Times on Gülen
In 2008, The New York Times wrote a story on the Gülen movement in Pakistan under the headline “Turkish Schools Offer Pakistan a Gentler Vision of Islam.” There rarely have been other stories about the movement in major U.S. papers.
The Philadelphia Enquirer said Gülen had gained his green card by convincing a federal judge in Philadelphia that he was an influential educational figure in the United States.
According to the newspaper, Gülen’s lawyer pointed to the 125 charter schools that his followers, including Turkish scientists, engineers and businessmen, have opened in 25 states.
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