In an act of contrition, City of Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan recently donated campaign contributions she received from a prominent Turkish American businessman who sat on her advisory committee and is known for harboring close ties to the Turkish government. Khan was responding to public outrage over a November 2020 video purportedly showing the mayor and her donor Ergun Kirlikovali joking about making Armenians — or perhaps their historical claims of genocide — "disappear."
Khan's political career has been dogged by allegations of favoritism toward Turkey and its allies, often to the detriment of Irvine's own Armenian American community. However, if she wants to make peace with her Armenian constituents, Khan should take another look at her campaign finance records.
While running to become California's first Muslim mayor in 2020, Khan accepted money from a Political Action Committee funded in large part by suspected Turkish government proxies and registered foreign agents. The California branch of the Turkish Coalition of America PAC (TC-USA), which donated $500 to Khan's campaign, appears to be part of an effort to influence US politicians and encourage support for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has used subversive methods to interfere in American politics, establishing think tanks, paid publicity agents and English-language media outlets to supplement its traditional lobbying efforts. Alarmingly, Turkey's propagandists are now funding candidates in small town races to promote Erdogan's priorities in the United States.
This includes fighting recognition of the Armenian Genocide: the large scale massacre of around 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman authorities during World War I. Now that Congress and President Joe Biden have formally recognized the tragedy, groups like TC-USA may be turning to state capitals and municipal governments to challenge Armenians' historical claims of genocide, for which there is robust scholarly and political consensus.
TC-USA and its regional PACs, collectively organized under the "Ten Thousand Turks" campaign, claim to represent Turkish American interests and work toward fostering improved US-Turkey relations. Yet, the Armenian Weekly reported on the PACs' activities and noted that they are "openly committed to Turkey's aim of rolling back US recognition of the Armenian Genocide." The newspaper pointed to nine members of Congress out of 11 total who voted against recognizing the Genocide in 2019 and benefitted from Turkish PAC funding.
"Naturally, Turkish-Americans have the right to contribute to political campaigns in the United States like any other American," wrote Harut Sassounian, publisher of the California Courier. "The only issue is that they are using their political outreach to spread lies about the Armenian Genocide. [Ten Thousand Turks'] political fundraising website is full of disinformation about the Genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey against Armenians."
As deplorable as it may be for TC-USA to fundraise around genocide denial, this is not the "only issue" with the PAC. At least four of its donors were investigated by the FBI for "attempting to infiltrate into the circles of American politicians on behalf of President Erdoğan," according to a leaked email sent to Erdoğan's son-in-law.
In 2015, two additional TC-USA donors caught the attention of presidential campaign advisers to Hillary Clinton, who warned that "the Erdoğan crew also tries to make inroads via donations to Democratic candidates." Four other donors are so closely intertwined with the Turkish state that they are listed as registered foreign agents of Turkey.
Following the 2020 election cycle, the Turkish PACs boasted about their success in funding races across the country, highlighting their support for Khan, who they called "a popular friend of Turkish Americans in southern California." Indeed, as an Irvine City Council member since 2019, Khan quickly established herself as a consistent supporter of Turkey's anti-Armenian agenda.
In fact, Khan regularly attends and commemorates Turkish and Azerbaijani holidays, and she surrounds herself with diplomatic and community leaders from those countries, which are known as Armenia's historical adversaries. In 2019, Khan was a guest speaker at the second annual Azerbaijan-Pakistan-Turkey Brotherhood Celebration in Los Angeles.
Crlebrated the Flavors of Azerbaijan w/the Hon Consul General @NasimiAghayev w/support by the Natl Commission of Azerbaijan for UNESCO.December 19, 2019
In 2020, the Fair Political Practices Commission initiated an investigation into Khan after she visited Azerbaijan in 2019 on the country's dime. Khan, who sat on the Irvine City Council at the time, claimed she visited Azerbaijan as a "private citizen, not in an official capacity." Ironically, the commission eventually cleared Khan because her trip was "reasonably related to a legislative or government purpose."
While Khan has praised Turkey and Azerbaijan in proclamations and speeches, she was the only Irvine City Council member to speak out against a November 2020 resolution recognizing Artsakh self-determination, despite unanimous support from Irvine citizens commenting on the bill. The Republic of Artsakh, an Armenian-majority breakaway state, was forced to cede territory to Azerbaijan in 2020 after a Turkish-backed offensive.
Ultimately, Khan failed to vote on the measure, even though it was revised to simply note that "violence has increased in Artsakh, causing worrying and concern to the Armenian Americans" of Irvine.
The latest controversy involving Khan occurred at a November 2020 meet-and-greet with members of the Turkish community, including Can Oguz of the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles. Towards the end of the meeting, which was first shared online by Turkish-language media, Khan received a gift of Turkish Delight candies from a supporter.
At this point, Kirlikovali interrupted to say that during "Armenians' occasions," Khan could eat the candies and "it will disappear."
"I'll make sure I eat it in front of them," Khan responded, laughing.
Although Kirlikovali later said that he was referring to "Armenian claims" that they invented Turkish Delight, members of Irvine's Armenian community are skeptical. After all, Kirlikovali, who is known to consult with AKP leaders, has spent a lifetime lobbying to erase any mention of the Armenian Genocide. He is one of two Turkish Americans who, until recently, sat on Khan's mayoral advisory committee.
For her part, Khan initially claimed that a video of the exchange shared by the Orange County chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) contained "fake captioning." Soon after, she had a change of heart and apologized to the Armenian community.
Thank you to everyone who has reached out over the past few days. I have learned a lot and wanted to offer this apology to the #Armenian community. It's imperative as leaders that we recognize when we miss the mark, commit to doing better and building trust with those we've hurt. pic.twitter.com/EDEeIQgLen— Farrah N. Khan (@FarrahNK) March 25, 2022
"I am giving my commitment to cut all ties with those that deny the Armenian Genocide," the mayor said.
Khan reaffirmed that commitment during an April 12 City Council hearing discussing "Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day" on April 24. "I have made sure that I do not have any member [of the mayoral administration] that is denying the Armenian Genocide," the mayor said.
"Not only that, I have donated $1,500 dollars to The Genocide Education Project," she added, referring to Kirlikovali's contribitions to her campaigns.
However, if Khan wishes to fully disassociate from genocide deniers, she must also cut ties with TC-USA.
First, Kirlikovali has been one of the PAC's most generous supporters, donating nearly $23,000 to TC-USA's California branch, including $1,500 as recently as the 2019-2020 election cycle. Therefore, Khan remains an indirect beneficiary of Kirlikovali's political contributions.
Second, taking money from TC-USA creates the perception that Khan is beholden to Turkish foreign agents and suspected proxies. Until the mayor returns or donates the TC-USA money she received, Irvine residents are justified in questioning her impartiality.
So far, Khan doesn't seem interested in making amends. The mayor refused to respond in substance to an email describing the Turkish PAC and noting its history of genocide denial.
However, she may be willing to listen to her constituents. To contact Mayor Khan, call 949-724-6233 or email her at FarrahKhan@CityofIrvine.org. Tell the mayor that taking money from the Turkish agents and genocide deniers sows division in the community and prolongs the pain and hardship experienced by the Armenian Diaspora.
Benjamin Baird is the director of Islamism in Politics, a project of the Middle East Forum.