Exclusive: How a pro-Trump Black group became an off-the-books Turkish lobbying campaign

A Salon investigation reveals a strange tale of Black Trump surrogates who tried to leverage Turkish billions

Published September 4, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (R) listens to pastor Darrell Scott during the Midwest Vision and Values Pastors and Leadership Conference at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio on September 21, 2016. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (R) listens to pastor Darrell Scott during the Midwest Vision and Values Pastors and Leadership Conference at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio on September 21, 2016. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

This article is the first in a two-part series.

In 2018, officials with a controversial pro-Trump nonprofit called the Urban Revitalization Coalition (URC) — which recently lost its tax-exempt charity status and made headlines earlier this year with suspicious cash giveaways to Black voters — facilitated an off-the-books foreign influence campaign on behalf of powerful people in Turkey, according to social media posts and people familiar with the organization.

URC officials Darrell Scott and Kareem Lanier, both prominent Trump surrogates in the Black community, are said by multiple sources to have used the organization as a vehicle to "solicit donations," including from wealthy Turkish nationals. Some of these solicitations came by way of former MAGA-world star Rabia Kazan, whom they brought on strictly for that purpose, according to Kazan and people familiar with the arrangement.

Furthermore, an associate of Scott and Lanier named Bruce Levell, a Trump surrogate, former congressional candidate and Small Business Association advocate — who was reportedly at one time in the running to head that cabinet-level agency — allegedly shook down Kazan for cash, then asked her to destroy records after reports of government raids on former Trump attorney Michael Cohen's home and offices, according to Kazan and others familiar with the events.

This foreign influence campaign was aimed at shaping U.S. policy in anticipation of an overarching trade deal with Turkey. It also intersected with Turkey's release of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor whom the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been holding as a political prisoner.

Text messages from an Erdogan aide obtained by Salon describe the exchange as a "gift" from Turkey — in other words, a quid pro quo intended to benefit each country.

Some of these activities, described in detail below, raise serious legal questions, such as violations of rules governing tax and lobbying law, experts tell Salon.

Legal experts and people familiar with the URC told Salon that given these activities, the organization appears to have functioned as a shell lobbying and fundraising operation, and a go-between that communicated with both the Trump administration (and Trump campaign) and Turkish interests close to Erdogan. 

This is a story about how peripheral players, including foreign nationals, worked on the legal margins of lobbying, campaign and foreign agent laws amid the chaotic free-for-all of the Trump presidency. They blurred official and unofficial administration posts with other organizational and campaign roles, and obscured the source and usage of funds from both the public and government agencies such as the IRS and Federal Elections Commission.

It's also a story about how these peripheral and inexperienced players, who found themselves suddenly close to the highest levels of power in the world, ultimately failed. The hype of their social media diplomacy (and Trump's) has died away, as have their second-string attempts, along with those of experienced career U.S. and Turkish officials, to navigate the full range of geopolitical factors that make such negotiations so difficult. In this case, those negotiations involved one of the most politically complex countries in the world, under the rule of an elected strongman, amid a climate of war and perilous domestic uncertainty in both nations.

While these trade negotiations received praise in the Turkish press — which wrote at one point that the prospective deal was expected to "soar" — it appears that the URC's efforts never got off the ground. 

Unlike in Turkey, they also went virtually unnoticed by the U.S. press.

First, an unlikely campaign

In 2018, URC officials first curried financial favors and investments from Turkish business representatives in connection with an economic initiative launched by the Trump administration, according to multiple people familiar with the events and the social media activity of the officials themselves.

Turkish business emissaries secured meetings in New York and Washington that extended to Trump officials, Republican members of Congress and campaign surrogates such as Tom Barrack and Lara Trump, according to public reports and social media posts.

The agenda was complicated. Broadly speaking, it was an effort to shape U.S. policy toward Turkey around trade and economic development. Specifically, it appears to have connected parallel URC efforts, to help craft an executive order and to help Turkish and U.S. interests effect a tentative multibillion-dollar trade expansion partly structured to open the American manufacturing market to Turkish companies, according to reports and social media posts from the people involved.

The fact that these meetings were apparently geared towards influencing official U.S. policy, experts say, raises questions about whether those involved should have registered with the Department of Justice as foreign agents.

Before the URC lost its tax-exempt status, it was a 501(c)(3) charity organization, which allowed the group to keep its funding sources secret and, uniquely, made any donations it received tax-deductible.

The URC made headlines when it held campaign-tinged events with cash giveaways for Black voters in poor communities, including a $25,000 raffle last December — something the organization had told the IRS it wouldn't do. Politico described the raffles as a nationwide strategy of holding events "in Black communities where they lavish praise on the president while handing out thousands of dollars in giveaways."

Ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) subsequently raised concerns that the organization was in breach of its promise to the IRS not to participate in political activities.

The URC's initial IRS application had promised that it would not give "funds to individuals," according to documents obtained by CREW, and that it would not operate raffles. It appears to have done both those things. The group also told the IRS that it would not "support or oppose candidates in political campaigns in any way," but its obvious pro-Trump activities raised questions about that, too.

But because the URC never filed a tax return, it's impossible to know much about the group's finances. Not only is its fundraising unknown, so is its spending and the amounts it raised over the years.

The URC was co-founded and helmed by Darrell Scott, an adviser to Trump's 2016 and 2020 campaigns who presents himself as a pastor reformed from a life of drugs. Scott currently co-chairs Black Voices for Trump, an official arm of the campaign which was formerly led by the late Herman Cain.

Scott often identifies himself as "Dr. Scott," thanks to an honorary degree he received in 2004 from the unaccredited St. Thomas Christian College. He is also the founder and pastor of the non-denominational New Spirit Revival Center, which is headquartered in a former Cleveland Heights synagogue and has its own radio station.

A familiar face at the White House, Scott has traveled with Trump multiple times on Air Force One and watched the 2018 midterm returns with the president at the White House. Scott is also close with senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, whom he calls "J-Rock," and can frequently be seen on the sidelines when the administration or the Trump campaign make appeals to Black voters.

The URC operates a dysfunctional website: It can't be accessed directly, only through backlinks; the "donations" button does not work; it lists a fake phone number tied to a Cleveland cemetery; and the posted email address bounces messages back to the sender.

Scott and URC co-founder Lanier are also senior members of the National Diversity Coalition, a minority-advocacy group created by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to help Trump reach out to nonwhite audiences, as best he could, in 2016. (Kazan was on the advisory board from Spring 2016 to May 2019.) The group turned on Cohen in 2018 following reports that he was co-operating with federal investigators. Bruce Levell, whom Kazan alleges of a shakedown, is also a senior official with the NDC, and has after a brief stint in the SBA re-emerged in the group as a face of Trump's 2020 campaign and claiming to have created the organization.

It's this backdrop that became one of a number of playing fields for shadow Turkish economic and government forces.

According to Kazan, a Turkish writer and former MAGA-world ambassador who turned on TrumpWorld amid threats to her safety and immigration status, Scott asked her to solicit "foreign donations" to the organization from wealthy business magnates she knew in Turkey.

Chief among those contacts — in Kazan's world and in Turkey generally — is the family of billionaire Rahmi Koç, who is perhaps the wealthiest person in Turkey outside of Erdogan, along with the Koç family megacorporation.

Kazan told Salon that she connected Scott with a number of influential Turkish figures, including Mehmet Nazif Günal, with whom she says Scott frequently discussed assets in Saudi Arabia, and Ali Akat, president of the Turkish American Business Association (TABA) and the Turkish-American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). Akat made at least two visits to the U.S. in 2018, in April and November.

The TABA-AmCham website describes the group as a non-governmental organization representing the American Chamber of Commerce in Turkey, "serving American companies operating in Turkey and Turkish companies in business relations with America."

Experts tell Salon that by all appearances, the URC was engaged in lobbying efforts on behalf of foreign interests — which if true would legally require it to register with the U.S. government as a foreign agent.

Furthermore, nothing happens at this level in Turkey without Erdogan's knowledge and blessing, expatriate Turkish journalist and newspaper editor Abdulhamit Bilici told Salon in a call.

"No, it's not possible Erdogan could not know about this. Even the smallest details of these things wouldn't happen without his knowledge. All businesses in the country, if allowed to operate, pay their dues to him, so to speak — including even the Koç family, the biggest conglomerate," Bilici said, a point familiar to experts in Turkey, even though Erdogan's name never appears in any of Scott and Lanier's social media braggadocio.

During Akat's two known trips to the U.S., he had multiple meetings with Scott, and met at least once with Lanier. The meetings focused mainly on deals regarding so-called "Opportunity Zones," a Trump administration initiative designed to incentivize investment in poor, heavily-minority areas, according to social media posts from Scott.

The financial incentives in Opportunity Zones are chiefly drawn from tax breaks on capital gains from real estate investment. But according to contemporaneous accounts in the press and in social media posts, the URC and Akat were not discussing exclusively real estate, but the possibility of creating billions of dollars in manufacturing opportunities that would introduce new foreign companies and give them an edge to compete in the U.S. market.

Lanier and Scott posted multiple times about their interactions with Akat in late April and May 2018. In one, Scott indicated that he would take Akat to meet the president at the White House, later confirmed by Akat in Turkish press.

Akat also published numerous photos from the trip in a press release on the Turkish Chamber of Commerce website.

At 9:31 p.m. on April 25, 2018, Scott tweeted, "With some of my Business Homies, Ali and the guys, in DC at the Trump discussing bringing businesses to America! Great things are on the horizon! #urbanRevitalizationCoalition."

At 9:34, he tweeted, "With my guy Ali to discuss bring HUNDREDS of BUSINESSES to Urban America. Great things are on the horizon __#UtbanRevitalizationCoalition" [sic], added a picture of himself with Akat in the atrium of the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

The following day, Scott tweeted, "Finalizing plans to bring 30 billion dollars in investment along with 25,000 well paying manufacturing jobs to Urban America. Great things are on the horizon!!!!! #UrbanRevitalizationCoalition"

Scott tagged all the tweets with the name of his nonprofit, whose mission, according to its website, is to "Revitalize America's Urban Communities!"

On May 6 — not long after Akat's departure, and one day after a since-deleted article in the Turkish press quoted Akat about the benefits of the visit — Scott tweeted, "Myself and @realkareemdream have been negotiating with foreign investors about potentially pouring billions of dollars into Opportunity Zones in Urban Communities all across the country. Great things are on the horizon! ##UrbanRevitalizationCoalition."

That same day, Lanier quoted Scott's tweet about "foreign investors," adding his own message: "Huge Announcement(s) Coming Soon Urban America! @realDonaldTrump@PastorDScott and many others are fighting everyday for all in our great country!!! @CNN and @MSNBC will be forced to eat their words and report "Real News" for a change. Hahaha!!!#BillionsontopofBillions"

(Scott repeated his original "foreign investor" tweet on May 20 from his alternate Twitter account. The only retweet was from a QAnon account.)

It is not clear what the "huge announcement" might have been. The U.S. never concluded any large-scale trade deal with Turkey — even through the regular government and economic channels that Erdogan and Akat were also exploring.

Akat can be seen in multiple photos taken at the Trump International in D.C., not just with Scott, but with billionaire Tom Barrack as well as Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law and chair of the America First Action super PAC. He also met with several members of Congress, lobbyists and White House officials, according to social media posts and contemporaneous Turkish media reports.

Akat posted a photo of himself at the hotel on April 30. That was the evening President Trump had an intimate dinner there with America First donors, which was famously attended by Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, Rudy Giuliani's personal envoys to Ukraine, who made a recording that night of Trump demanding the removal of Marie Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to that nation.

In a taped phone conversation in Turkish, obtained by Salon and independently translated by experts three times, Akat acknowledges that Scott and Lanier had solicited monetary "donations" from him. (This could be construed, experts say, as soliciting payment in return for lobbying work.) Akat says that when he declined to give them money, the two men "pressured" him to delete photos of their meetings on social media.

Kazan claims that Scott and Lanier asked that she do the same with her own relevant photos from the time.

It's not clear when Scott and Lanier are alleged to have made this demand. In January 2019, after the Turkish trade deal appears to have fallen through, Lanier lamented foreign influence in the U.S. government in multiple tweets.

"Why are we sending $40+ Billion in 'assistance' to foreign citizens and not giving $8 Billion for our country's safety?" reads one.

Some of Akat's photos are still publicly accessible, but his tweets are not — at some point he set his 122,000-follower Twitter account to private. One photo from his trip is available on independent reporter Zach Everson's 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue blog and in a Turkish-language TABA press release.

Salon has archived a number of photos referenced in this article here.

Akat appears to have deleted only one photo — the only one where he is shown with Lanier.

Lanier runs a real estate consulting firm in Georgia called Buckhead Consulting Agency Inc. Asked for comment on this article in a phone call, Lanier said, "I've had nothing to do with anything Turkey."

Reminded of the social media posts and shown the deleted photograph, Lanier declined comment.

Then an unexplained shakedown

Around the time that Ali Akat visited the United States, the FBI raided residences and offices of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who had created the National Diversity Coalition for Trump and recruited Darrell Scott and Bruce Levell into the 2016 Trump campaign.

Cohen and the group then brought Rabia Kazan into the NDC in the spring of 2016. She continued to advocate on the group's advisory board after the inauguration, and was placed by Cohen near Trump, next to Omarosa Manigault, during a press conference at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

Around that time, Levell, an Atlanta-area jewelry store owner and Black Trump surrogate who styled himself an NDC executive director — but was described by multiple people as in charge of its computer network — launched a long-shot campaign in the special election for the 6th congressional district of Georgia.

(After the 2016 campaign, Levell, was reportedly considered as possible head of the Small Business Administration, a cabinet-level agency. In the end, Trump appointed Linda McMahon, wife of a professional wrestling mogul, instead. Leah Levell, Bruce's daughter, who also worked as a 2016 Trump surrogate, ended up with a White House gig.)

At CPAC, Kazan says, Levell's assistant asked her to write a $200 check to Levell's campaign — the cut-off for reporting donations to the FEC. Kazan said she wrote the check but did not think to ask for a receipt, adding that everyone at NDC knew her immigration status, which would have made it illegal to solicit or accept the donation. (Kazan herself was not aware that she was legally barred from donating to campaigns until this January, according to BuzzFeed News.)

Levell lost the election that April.

A year later, on March 7, 2018, after speaking at an International Women's Day event in Washington, Kazan got a call from Levell, whose Twitter bio says he is a "longtime President Donald J Trump advisor."

Kazan claims that Levell told her on the call, which a Kazan associate confirmed overhearing to Salon, that he was coming from the White House and needed her to withdraw $2,000 cash as a donation to NDC. Kazan said she asked if she could pay with a credit card, but Levell, she says, demanded cash. He  told her he would get it from her at the Trump International lobby in two hours, at around 7 p.m.

At 6 p.m., Kazan went to the Bank of America ATM near the Trump hotel, where she withdrew the ATM limit — $1,000, as confirmed by banking records reviewed by Salon.

When Kazan met Levell in the hotel lobby, he was upset she didn't have the full $2,000, and told her that NDC needed the cash to pay for website work. She said Levell took the cash she had, and she didn't get a receipt.

"I would never think people are coming from White House, an adviser for Trump, forcing you to get cash like a 'Goodfellas' movie," Kazan later told Salon. The story was independently confirmed by another person familiar with the group, who indicated Levell squeezed others for money.

Two months later, on May 9, 2018, Levell messaged Kazan over Telegram — an encrypted messaging service — telling her they needed to speak over a landline. Kazan then texted him from another phone.

"Trust me. Don't talk to anybody about NDCTrump. Delete," wrote Levell. "Cohen under fire. Thanks."

A month earlier, the FBI raided Cohen's home and office, seizing his hard drives and cell phones. The week that Levell texted Kazan, news outlets reported on financial records showing that Cohen's LLC had received payments from companies hoping to gain actionable insight into the president's thinking.

A law enforcement official later told the New Yorker that he had leaked the records after he realized that two critical reports on Cohen's financial activity were missing from a government database. Kazan says that in the call, Levell told her he was worried about exposure to the FBI, and that phones belonging to people at the NDC might be monitored.

A week before the raids, the NDC account tweeted its support for Cohen, who at the time was under public scrutiny as the Stormy Daniels payoff scandal unraveled.

".@NDCTrump is thankful for our chairman @MichaelCohen212 for defending our POTUS everyday and for putting the people's priorities first. Retweet if you agree !! #AmericaFirst #MAGA @Bruce_LeVell @PastorDScott @realDonaldTrump @ChristosBlueSky @DonaldJTrumpJr @STEPHMHAMILL", the post read, above a picture of Trump giving a thumbs-up.

Eventually, however, Cohen split from the group, and less than a year later flatly delivered a blistering critique of Trump's racism to Congress, which Cohen's testimony detailed from what he said were events in his first-hand experience. (The NDC tweeted the next day that Cohen was lying.)

Cohen, who at one point defended Trump as not racist, has emphasized the point repeatedly and will offer new details of Trump's bigotry in his forthcoming book, Disloyal — which coincidentally will go head-to-head with Scott's own new book, a fight Scott appears to savor.

According to Kazan, a few days after the Levell texts, she played a recording she made of the call with Levell for Scott and Lanier in a meeting on the seventh floor of the Trump International Hotel. According to Kazan, upon hearing the tape, Scott told her that NDC did not accept donations and did not have a bank account, and that her "donation" would have been illegal. Scott called Levell, she says, and after a loud, profanity-laced conversation told Kazan not to publicize the matter.

Around that time, Scott and Lanier invited Kazan to join the URC, which people familiar with the matter told was formed in part to give Scott and Levell their own group, separate from Cohen, which would fall under the purview of the Republican Party. Kazan accepted.

"@_rabiakazan Congratulations on your new position. You're the person for the job! #UrbanRevitalizationCoalition," Scott tweeted on May 8.

Kazan replied, "IT IS A GREAT HONOR FOR ME SIR! #UrbanRevitalizationCoalition #maga".

Kazan told Salon that it wasn't clear to her why she — a Turkish writer and women's rights advocate, with no experience in economic development or community advocacy — was the "person for the job" at an organization ostensibly devoted to revitalizing largely Black urban areas. Except, that is, for what struck her as obvious: The group wanted to tap into her access to wealthy and influential people in Turkey. They had no other use for her, she said.

"I did nothing," she told Salon. "They asked me to bring customers."

Specifically, Kazan said, Scott and Lanier asked her to "solicit donations," including from Turkish connections. This was corroborated by another person familiar with the workings of the group.

"Kareem told me we have people who are ready to give one million dollars," Kazan added.

Kazan's sister married into one of the wealthiest families in Turkey, which controls the plastics manufacturing giant Plastmore. She has tapped those connections. For instance, Kazan connected Trump confidant Roger Stone to billionaire Rami Koç so that Stone could try to drum up money for his legal fund, as BuzzFeed News reported this February. According to reporting in Politico and BuzzFeed, Rudy Giuliani's communications assistant, Christianné Allen, tried to convince Kazan's sister to connect Plastmore directly with Giuliani — which Kazan's sister declined to do.

In several emails sent months later and acquired by Salon, Kazan demanded a refund of the money she had given Levell, reminding Scott that she had played the phone call recording for him.

Scott distanced himself and the NDC from this incident, telling Kazan that the matter was between her and Levell. "Once again, I'm very sorry that this happened, but the NDC was not involved," Scott wrote in an email, obtained by Salon. The NDC, Scott again told Kazan, could not accept donations and did not have a bank account.

The NDC's definition as a political and taxable entity is hazy. Levell for his part claimed in a 2016 interview with the Washington Post that the group wasn't a political committee and wouldn't raise money for the campaign, a distance that the campaign reinforced at the time. Per the Post:

"And I'm not being paid!" LeVell declared, a point he likes to make after a recent appearance on an urban radio station during which callers asked how much money he was getting to talk up Trump. "I make my own money. I have a five-star-rated business."

LeVell said the group is not a political committee and will raise no money for Trump. Trump spokesman Hope Hicks confirmed that the group was created independently from the campaign. "They are not affiliated with the campaign," she said, adding, "Mr. Trump is incredibly grateful for their support."

However, it appears today that Level is doing just that.

The NDC website still lists Levell as executive director. He never landed the top, cabinet-level slot at SBA, but was brought on as a Southern regional advocate. Though he appears to have left the SBA, or at least significantly cut his work since 2019, it is not clear when or why. Levell did not reply to any of Kazan's emails about the alleged shakedown, and did not reply to Salon's detailed questions for this article.

Kazan resigned from the NDC the following May. When Salon asked why she stayed at this dubious organization for so long, she replied, "Because I loved the president. I was still believing in him."

Next: A visit to the White House, dreams of a $12 billion deal and the release of an American pastor.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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