New corruption cases exposed in Turkey

24 December 2013 /TODAY’S ZAMAN, ANKARA – New corruption cases have emerged as new wiretappings and videos have surfaced as part of a graft investigation in which four ministers of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) were also allegedly involved.

A construction mogul had a construction plan for a valuable building site he owned in İstanbul amended with the help of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar, despite the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s (İBB) previous rejection of a proposal seeking substantial enlargement of the construction area, the Taraf daily claimed on Monday.

According to Taraf, Ali Ağaoğlu, a construction mogul who was released after being taken into custody as part of the recent graft probe on condition that he be kept under judicial supervision and not leave Turkey, bought a plot of land in 2011 measuring nearly 65,000 square meters opposite the Veliefendi Hippodrome in İstanbul’s Bakırköy district. A year later, Ağaoğlu reportedly applied to the İBB for the construction plan of the building site to be amended for more construction area. The İBB’s city council unanimously voted against the requested amendment that sought to increase the total construction area of the site by 193 percent. If Ağaoğlu’s request were to have been accepted by the city council, the area reserved for green areas on the plot of land owned by the construction mogul would have been reduced from almost 37,000 square meters to 23,000 square meters while the total area on that land that could be used for construction purposes would have gone up to 170,000 square meters. Following the rejection by the city council to amend the construction plan of the land, the issue was later settled according to the mogul’s wishes after Ağaoğlu took up the issue with Prime Minister Erdoğan as per a claim in the graft probe documents, the daily said.

As per the daily, in one of his wiretapped telephone conversations with Timur Soysal, a member of the İBB city council, Ağaoğlu was heard saying about the issue: “I got it done through the prime minister. I’m clear about it. You insistently did not move to settle it. I then told Kadir Bey (Kadir Topbaş, the mayor of the İBB) about the issue but did not get any results. Then I went to the big boss [most likely referring to Prime Minister Erdoğan] and he directly instructed the minister [of environment and urban planning, Bayraktar]. ‘Settle the issue,’ he [the prime minister] said.”

In the wiretapped phone conversation, Ağaoğlu complained that Topbaş had kept delaying dealing with the issue although he had promised to settle it during a meeting before a thousand people. What Ağaoğlu wants is to increase the maximum height of the buildings he can build on that plot of land from a permitted 35 meters to 70 meters, thereby almost doubling the area of construction. When his project was rejected by the İBB city council, Ağaoğlu reportedly took the issue to Bayraktar’s son and to Sadık Soylu, the minister’s advisor. Through them, the daily claimed, Ağaoğlu’s project was deemed a “special project area” by the ministry and the amendments to the construction plan as requested by the construction mogul were carried out.

In a wiretapped phone conversation with the minister, Ağaoğlu seems to have gotten the green light from Bayraktar. In a conversation between the two on Feb. 1, Ağaoğlu told Bayraktar he wanted to have a talk with him about “that thing.” In response, the minister reportedly said: “Go head as you please. Never mind [the objection by the İBB]. If that does not suit you, go ahead as you please.”

Süleyman Aslan, the general manager of Halkbank, a public bank, was also arrested as part of the investigation. Bayraktar is being accused of taking bribes for Turkey’s gold trade with Iran, an act which was often criticized by the US in the past for allegedly violating the US embargo against Iran.In a raid of Aslan’s house last week, the police found $4.5 million hidden in shoe boxes. According to a story in the Hürriyet daily on Monday, Aslan said the money in the shoe boxes were donations given to him for charity for the construction of Balkan University in Macedonia and a religious vocational high school in Çorum.

“An İstanbul deputy, H.B., who is head of the board of trustees of a university, asked me for help, saying, ‘In Turkey one can make donations. We have difficulty getting [money] transferred to Macedonia’,” the general manager of Halkbank reportedly said in his statement at court in defense. “Besides, through his son, C.B., they physically delivered 1.95 million euros to me,” he added.

According to the recent graft investigation, Iranian businessman of Azeri origin, Reza Zarrab, who lives in Turkey, is claimed to have distributed to three ministers and their sons a total of TL 137 million ($66 million) in bribes to cloak fictitious exports and money laundering which the organization was engaged in. Halkbank and its general manager were also engaged in Turkey’s gold trade with Iran.

Zarrab, Aslan reportedly said in his statement, was a charitable man and told Aslan that he wanted to make some donations. “It’s then that the Çorum Osmancık religious vocational high school, where I graduated from, came to my mind. When I informed him [Zarrab] about the school’s needs, he said he was ready to pay for the costs. […] I shared this idea with local officials [in Çorum], Çorum deputies and managers of the school,” Aslan said.

In another story of possible corruption which appeared on the T24 website on Monday, Oktay Ferşat, the brother-in-law of Yalçın Akdoğan, a chief political advisor to Prime Minister Erdoğan, is accused of giving bribes to officials from the Ministry of Health. In a video recording shared on social media, the webpage said, Ferşat is heard saying that he gave bribes to bureaucrats from the Ministry of Health. “The Ministry of Health received TL 100,000 [$49,000] in bribes from me,” he said in the apparently secretly recorded video. Akdoğan said on his Twitter account on Monday morning that it is sheer malice to try and give the impression that he is in any way connected to Ferşat, with whom he denied being in any business partnerships. “All claims [of illegal activities] about a relative of mine are being investigated both by way of a court case I launched months ago and by the authorities as they became aware [of wrongdoings of Ferşat],” Akdoğan said.