Before FBI Probe, Eric Adams Campaign Accepted and Returned $10,000 in Donations Linked to Turkish University

Before FBI Probe, Eric Adams Campaign Accepted and Returned $10,000 in Donations Linked to Turkish University

Editorial credit: Bakhtiyar MD /

By Bianca PallaroYoav Gonen, and George Joseph | November 3, 2023

Less than two months before the 2021 general election, the Eric Adams campaign received five $2,000 donations from people listed as employees of Bay Atlantic University, a small Turkish-owned institution based in Washington, D.C.

Now, the university-linked contributions are under scrutiny as part of an investigation conducted by federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. to determine whether the Adams campaign conspired with the institution, as well as a construction company owned by businessmen of Turkish descent, to illegally funnel foreign money into the campaign’s coffers.

On Thursday, federal agents raided the home of a top fundraiser for Adams’ 2021 and re-election campaigns, Brianna Suggs.

Adams said in a statement Friday that he was “outraged and angry if anyone attempted to use the campaign to manipulate our democracy and defraud our campaign.”

He said he had no knowledge of improper fundraising activity or of the involvement of foreign money.

Among the evidence sought in the FBI search warrant for Suggs’ home were documents related to Bay Atlantic University, the New York Times reported following the raid.

The five donations from Bay Atlantic University workers came from a fundraiser held on September 18, 2021, and were refunded 17 days later, according to campaign records. Under federal law, it is illegal for any federal or local campaign to accept money from foreign nationals.

The donations took place well after Adams had won the Democratic primary in June and was comfortably leading his Republican opponent Curtis Sliwa in polls.

When asked why those donations were returned, Evan Thies, Adams’ 2021 campaign spokesperson said in a text message to THE CITY, “The campaign had raised more money than it could spend.” But campaign records show they accepted and did not return other contributions in the weeks that followed.

Three of the five would-be Adams contributors from Bay Atlantic University ignored repeated requests for comment.

Sinem Vatanartiran, the university’s president since 2014, did not initially respond to emails and a voicemail left with her and her academic institution.

“I personally supported the mayor, so I donated to him, but by the time my contribution was received, I was told his campaign had reached the maximum public finance limits, and my check was returned,” a spokesperson speaking on behalf of Vatanartiran later responded. “I understand this also happened to several of my former colleagues who are no longer with BAU but also personally supported the mayor’s campaign and had donations returned.”

Melek Idib, whose LinkedIn profile lists her as a CFO for the college, did not respond to repeated interview requests left with employees at her accounting business.

Izel Ugur, an individual listed as a “registrar” in campaign records, hung up when reached by THE CITY and did not respond to repeated text messages. According to Ugur’s LinkedIn profile, she previously served as an executive assistant to Bay Atlantic University’s president when the $2,000 donation was made in 2021.

All of them donated exactly $2,000 to Adams, but none of them are registered to vote in New York, Maryland, or Washington, D.C.

Records from New York City’s Campaign Finance Board show that regulators asked the Adams’ campaign two times in October 2021 to explain who bundled those five refunded donations totaling $10,000. The campaign did not explain to regulators at the time, or in response to questions from THE CITY on Friday, about who bundled together the contributions.

Three students working as journalists claimed they were booted in 2016 from a master’s program at Bay Atlantic University, also referred to as BAU, for their public writings or statements that were critical of Turkey President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, according to the Daily Beast.

School officials refuted the claims at the time, telling the publication that the students had failed required English proficiency exams.

Adams in Turkey

As Brooklyn borough president, Adams met with officials at a university affiliated with Bay Atlantic University in Istanbul, Bahcesehir University, on two separate trips to Turkey in 2015, according to records obtained by THE CITY.

The visits included a meeting on December 12 with president Enver Yucel of BAU Global, the umbrella education network that founded both Bay Atlantic and Bahcesehir universities.

Adams had visited Bahcesehir’s campus only five months earlier on a separate trip, during which he had lunch with the university’s vice rector and other university officials.

On that earlier visit, on August 12, 2015, Adams was presented with an “honorary faculty member” plaque and provided with documentation regarding a scholarship that was being awarded to two students — one in his name and another in the name of the borough of Brooklyn.

At a meeting with professors that day, Adams was also asked to give a 15-minute speech on “American Local Government,” according to an undated itinerary sent to Adams’ office by a university official ahead of the trip.

A portion of that trip, for which Adams was accompanied by his legal counsel, a volunteer staffer, and his longtime former NYPD pal Tim Pearson, was initially said to be paid by Bahcesehir University — to the tune of about $6,000.

Adams’ legal counsel then and now, Ama Dwimoh, later told the city Conflicts of Interest Board that the flights — including a business class seat for Adams — would be paid for by Turkish Airlines.

But a Conflicts of Interest Board approval letter identified Bahcesehir University as one of the funders of the $15,000 trip, along with Turkish Airlines, the “Turkish Culture and Promotion Office in New York,” and local municipal governments.

A request for clarification with the mayor’s office sent late Friday about who funded the trip wasn’t immediately responded to.

Adams’ second trip, on which he was accompanied again by Dwimoh and Borough Hall volunteer Rana Abbasova, totaled just over $14,000 in costs, mostly covered by the group the Association of Young Tourism Leaders.

In addition to meeting with Yucel, Adams also met on that December 2015 trip with Semsettin Aydin, owner of Baysas Construction, whose company was initially slated to cover $2,150 in trip expenses. But that portion was covered by a separate entity at the last moment, the documents show.

According to a local Turkish report at the time, Adams told Aydin that he wanted to introduce him to Brooklyn contractors.

“I would like to host you in my country at the first opportunity you get,” Adams was reported as saying.

In press releases at the time, Borough Hall touted the purpose of Adams’ first trip as “advancing cultural exchange and transatlantic commerce,” and the second as “spread[ing] message of transatlantic solidarity” at a time of “rising fears over global terror.”

More recently, Adams appeared at a Global Zero Waste event in Manhattan in September with the first lady of Turkey, Ermine Erdogan.

Last week, at a flag-raising ceremony for Turkey, the mayor honored restaurant owner Aliriza Dogan — who in August 2021 hosted a fundraiser that netted nearly $21,000 for Adams’ campaign — for his work helping to feed homeless New Yorkers.

Adams also boasted at the Lower Manhattan event that he’s not only likely the first mayor to have visited Turkey, but that he has visited the country six or seven times.

“New York is the Istanbul of America,” he said.

This story was published by THE CITY on November 3, 2023.

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