The Republic of Turkey filed a 32-page complaint against the Houston-based Harmony Public Schools Tuesday. It asks the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to investigate and sanction the public charter chain over its practices and affiliations.
It purports misuse of the H-1B visa program, discriminatory employment and vendor bidding practices, plus funneling money to the Gülen Organization, which the Turkish president has accused of trying to overthrow the government.
Amsterdam & Partners, LLC, an international law firm specializing in political advocacy and cross-border disputes, filed the complaint. The Turkish government retained the firm in October 2015 to conduct a global investigation into the “activities of the organization led by Gülen.”
This refers to Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who attorney Robert Amsterdam describes as “a reclusive but influential Imam living under self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania to avoid criminal prosecution in his native Turkey.” Gülen is a powerful and determined opponent of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Breitbart News reported. He has been linked to Harmony and other U.S. charter schools.
“Gülen’s religious views and his ideological followers (usually as the Gülen Movement or Hizmet) are not at issue in this complaint. What is at issue, however, is that Harmony displays the same markers of impropriety and illegality as other charter school networks linked to the Gülen Organization,” the document states.
The complaint, obtained by Breitbart Texas, interweaves a narrative where ties to the Gülen Organization permeate questionable practices such as misuse of the H-1B visas, job discrimination against non-Turks and women, and favoritism towards Turkish nationals and men. U.S. federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on national origin and gender.
The charter chain says it cannot find enough qualified Texas educators to teach its science and math curriculum and relies on the visa program. Harmony concentrates heavily on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). They use taxpayer dollars to fill the gap with mainly Turkish nationals, although the complaint notes “42% of Harmony’s Turkish teachers do not teach either math or science.”
Instead, they teach Physical Education, English, and Fine Arts. Visa program workers also fill many other non-STEM positions such as legal counsel, budget accountants, human resources managers, area superintendents, counselors, librarians, and assistant principals.
“In 2015 and 2016, Harmony sponsored more H-1B visas than any other elementary or secondary entity in the U.S. The number of visa applications sponsored by Harmony is especially abnormal considering the small size of Harmony’s workforce,” according to the grievance.
In the 2014-2015 school year, Harmony employed approximately 2,600 personnel. From 2001 to 2012, Harmony filed 2,500 H-1B visa applications, “with an astonishing total of 3,280 applications from 2001-15.”
Harmony spokesman Mustafa Tameez says the charter chain since reduced the number of H-1B employees from 20 percent to less than 7 percent, the San Antonio Express News reported.
Even when H-1B visa recipients are not from Turkey, the complaint charges they are “likely connected to Gülen-affiliated schools, universities, and cultural institutions around the world.”
Whistleblower accounts tell the story of Turkish teachers forced to work long hours, on weekends and holidays on top of their regular jobs. These unidentified individuals say they were required to donate to other Gülen Organization charter schools, entitities, and politicians as part of the trade-off” for being brought to the U.S. on the visa program “all under threat of losing their visas.”
The complaint also charges the charter chain funnels money to the Gülen Organization, the network of Gülen schools and affiliated businesses which Erdoğan has accused of trying to overthrow the government.
“Gülen uses the schools in the United States to get his followers out of Turkey,” said Amsterdam Monday. “It’s a massive scheme to, basically, launder money back to the Gülen organization. It’s very sophisticated. It’s completely non-transparent.”
Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy described these followers, Gülenists, as “kind of a Turkish Islamic supremacist cult” on Wednesday’s Breitbart News Daily with SiriusXM host Stephen K. Bannon.
Harmony is the second-largest charter network in the nation. It is the largest charter chain in Texas, operating 46 campuses and serving 30,500 students. Presently, Harmony lists 3,262 faculty and staff members. They boast a 98 percent high school graduation rate and 100 percent college acceptance rate. Harmony plans to open 15 new campuses over the next two school years, adding approximately 10,000 students, the complaint states.
The schools are open enrollment charters, free for students to attend like in any public school. They differ from their public school counterparts in that they are privately managed. School governance board members are appointed, not elected.
In Texas, Harmony is financed by over $250 million state and federal taxypayer dollars annually. The schools are eligible for various federal funds, the free and reduced breakfast and national school lunch programs, as well as certain grants.
TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told Breitbart Texas that Harmony schools, like any public charter or school district, must follow the state education standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). She says they do.
Still, the attorneys for the Turkish government called Harmony out of compliance on the TEKS, also alleging the charter chain engages in practices like giving “bonus points to student grades based on attendance,” and failure to use assessments to show mastery of subjects in 2014-15.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found English language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities were “significantly underrepresented” at Harmony compared to their peers enrolled at traditional public schools. An agreement later ensured compliance with federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and disability.
Ironically, discrimination is again an issue. The complaint purports Harmony favors Turkish male nationals “over all other backgrounds.” It asserts the charter’s governing board and charter holder, the Cosmos Foundation, discriminates against women, U.S. citizens, and other non-Turkish individuals in the recruitment, hiring, pay, and promotion.” Leadership positions “almost exclusively” go to Turkish men, who are systematically paid more than their American counterparts.
The grievance also contends Harmony officials give preferential treatment to Turkish vendors with ties to Turkish cultural groups, a “key indicator” of Gülen Organization affiliation. One cultural group cited is the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, an organization the complaint states Gülen founded.
The complaint calls this “particularly egregious behavior” since former employees successfully sued Harmony for employment discrimination on the basis of gender and national origin.
In 2013, Harmony allegedly gave $805,000 to the Texas Gulf Foundation in contracts improperly using federal Race to the Top funds, the complaint also asserts.
Harmony immediately dismissed the complaint as “nothing more than a politically motivated re-hash of old claims and complaints that have been heard and investigated previously and found to be without merit,” the Texas Tribune reported.
In a recent letter, Harmony CEO and co-founder, Soner Tarim said the schools “do not teach religion” and “have no affiliation with Fethullah Gülen or the so-called Gülen movement” and does not fund them. Tarim denied vendor improprieties, claiming Harmony uses a bidding or procurement process set out by the state of Texas.
The TEA did not know how much Arabic culture is infused into the Harmony schools.
Meanwhile, Amsterdam called for the Texas Education Agency to scrutinize what he characterized as a “mass level of deception,” according to the Express News.
“The money that they’re skimming off American taxpayers finds its way back to Turkey,” said Amsterdam. “They’ve been trying to overthrow the government of Turkey.”
The law firm is on retainer at $50,000 a month to investigate the Harmony charter school chain. Last November, Amsterdam filed a comprehensive 90-part open records request to inquire about the school’s practices. Harmony said it would cost $690,000 to properly respond to the grievance.
The TEA told Breitbart Texas they received the complaint and are reviewing it.
Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.