Top Hillary Clinton campaign officials were warned last summer that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would make contributions to the campaign through American proxies to gain favor, but chose to take money from one of the people they were warned about nonetheless.
The warning came last August in an email to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Michael Werz, an expert on Turkey who used to work for Podesta's Center for American Progress, told Podesta that the "Erdogan faction" was making investments in Democratic candidates such as Clinton.
"Am told that the Erdogan crew also tries to make inroads via donations to Democratic candidates, including yours," Werz told Podesta. "Two names that you should be aware of are Mehmet Celebi and Ali Cinar."
Werz, who did not respond to a request for comment, wrote that the "Erdogan faction is making substantial investments in U.S. to counter opposition (CHP, Kurds, Gülenists etc.) outreach to policymakers and USG."
Podesta forwarded the email to Dennis Cheng, who runs the campaign's fundraising operation.
The email was posted online by Wikileaks. The U.S. director of national intelligence and the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security have accused "Russia’s senior-most officials" of hacking and leaking the emails to influence the 2016 election.
Ali Cinar, one of the men Werz warned about, had already given Clinton $2,700 three months earlier in May. This year, Cinar gave an additional $2,000 to Clinton this August and $500 more in September.
Cinar has also given $1,080 to the Democratic National Committee this cycle.
The Clinton campaign would not answer questions on the donations from Cinar.
Cinar is currently president of the Turkish Heritage Organization, a recognized non-profit based in the United States that was recently probed by the FBI after hacked emails from the Erdogan administration revealed that the group was lobbying on behalf of the Turkish presidency in the United States.
In an email to the Washington Free Beacon, Cinar said that Werz's warning was "false," and that his donations were made "as a private, American citizen."
"If you don't have the facts or proof, you can't just lie and send wrong information to anybody," Cinar said. "What he has done was so unethical."
Cinar said that he has "no affiliation with AK Party or President Erdogan" and that reports of an FBI probe of THO are false.
Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, questioned whether the work done by the group should threaten its non-profit status.
"Hacked emails demonstrate that the Turkish Heritage Organization is working on behalf of the Turkish presidency," Cook wrote. "Isn't that a violation of its 501(c)3 status?"
The hacked Turkish emails showed that Erdogan's son-in-law, who is also Turkey's energy minister, was in direct contact with the Turkish Heritage Organization over its political work in the United States. The group's former president, Halil Danismaz, resigned in the wake of the FBI investigation, giving way for Cinar to take over as the official president.
Cinar said, "Danismaz did not, in his capacity as President of THO or on behalf of THO, provided any services to or act at the best of, request of, or with funding from, the Turkish government or its representatives."
"Cook's twitter is false accusation," Cinar said. "THO is not in any way violation of its not-for-profit status."
Cinar has managed to make headway in the Democratic Party. He was given a top post on the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council, which was created to foster support within ethnic communities.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Erdogan's effort to gain influence through various Turkish American organizations such as the Turkish Heritage Organization goes back to his 2013 rift with Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish religious leader who lives in the United States.
"Gülen and Erdogan had a very good relationship until December 2013—they used to be working together and hence Erdogan didn't need much help lobbying because Gülen's reach was very strong in the United States," Erdemir explained. "After the fallout between the two, Erdogan tried to replace the Gülen network with an alternative network."
"That is when the Turkish Heritage Organization came forth," Erdemir said.
Cinar said that his job in the Democratic Party is "to foster support within ethnic communities, not to bring up foreign policy issues."
Erdogan has blamed Gülen for orchestrating the unsuccessful coup attempt earlier this year and has called for the United States to turn him over to Turkey.
Last month Erdogan referred to Clinton as a "political novice."
Email records show that Clinton maintained a relationship with Gülen-aligned forces while she was secretary of state. The Gülen network has also flooded money into both Clinton political operations and the Clinton Foundation.
Erdemir said "the Democratic Party itself has become the battleground for Erdogan-Gülen battles."
"Turkish-American efforts within the Democratic Party are an attempt on the Turkish side to prevent pro-Gülen Turkish-American activity there," Erdemir said.
UPDATE Nov. 2, 9:11 A.M.: This post has been updated to clarify comments from Erdemir.
UPDATE Nov. 2, 3:00 P.M.: This post has been updated to reflect comment from Cinar.