September 3, 2021 | Policy Brief

U.S. Should Intensify Efforts to Extradite Turkish Money Laundering Suspect

September 3, 2021 | Policy Brief

U.S. Should Intensify Efforts to Extradite Turkish Money Laundering Suspect

An Austrian court on August 25 tentatively granted Ankara’s request to extradite Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, a Turkish businessman Austrian authorities arrested on June 19 at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for his alleged role in money laundering schemes that attempted to defraud the U.S. Treasury. If the court denies Washington’s competing request to extradite Korkmaz, it risks facilitating Ankara’s attempts to cover up the alleged crimes of a suspect with reported links not only to senior Turkish officials but also to U.S.-sanctioned Venezuelan and Lebanese figures.

DOJ seeks to extradite Korkmaz because he and his investment company, SBK Holding, have ties to Jacob and Isaiah Kingston, who pleaded guilty in July 2019 to defrauding the United States of $512 million in renewable-fuel tax credits through their company Washakie Renewable Energy LLC in Plymouth, Utah. As part of DOJ’s efforts to recover the Kingston brothers’ assets, U.S. prosecutors submitted to a Utah federal court a list of Turkish properties owned by the Kingstons and managed by Korkmaz and SBK Holding. Relatedly, in March 2020, a federal jury in Salt Lake City convicted California businessman Lev Aslan Dermen — a co-conspirator with the Kingstons and business partner of Korkmaz — of fraud and money laundering.

Korkmaz’s connections to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his inner circle make Korkmaz’s potential extradition to the United States and potential testimony a sensitive matter for Ankara. On July 1, an Istanbul court granted the Turkish president’s request to ban access to 55 websites that published a photo showing Erdogan meeting with Korkmaz and Jacob Kingston.

The Erdogan government is particularly concerned that Korkmaz may turn state’s witness in the United States, following in the footsteps of the Turkish-Iranian sanctions evader Reza Zarrab. In a 2017 trial at a Manhattan federal court, Zarrab implicated Erdogan, his senior aides, and Turkey’s two largest public lenders in a multibillion-dollar Iranian scheme to evade U.S. sanctions.

In addition to focusing on money laundering charges, investigative journalists have alleged that Korkmaz and his associates have connections to Venezuela’s Maduro regime and reportedly chartered flights for Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s oil minister, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for international narcotics trafficking. Korkmaz reportedly also has relations with Saleh Assi, a Lebanese businessman sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for laundering money for Lebanese Hezbollah.

If Korkmaz turns state’s witness in the United States, he might implicate the Erdogan government in facilitating the Venezuelan regime’s sanctions evasion, drug trafficking, and money laundering schemes as well as Hezbollah’s illicit financial transactions. In so doing, Korkmaz would solidify Ankara’s global image as a leading facilitator of sanctions evasion, terrorism finance, and money laundering.

The Erdogan government appears to have shielded Korkmaz and his associates from U.S. and Turkish legal action until recently, according to video confessions by Turkish mobster Sedat Peker recently posted on YouTube. As Korkmaz’s legal troubles have mounted, Turkish authorities have pursued a strategy of obstruction in the guise of cooperation. Last December, Istanbul prosecutors issued a detention warrant against Korkmaz, and Ankara attempted to extradite him from Austria right after his arrest on June 19 to prevent his extradition to the United States. In Turkey, the government could easily manipulate judicial proceedings to prevent embarrassing revelations.

After the Austrian court rules on the validity of the U.S. extradition request, Austria’s Federal Ministry of Justice will make a final decision between competing Turkish and American claims over Korkmaz’s extradition. The Biden administration should intensify its efforts to extradite Korkmaz, while Austrian authorities should recognize that Ankara’s extradition request seeks to avoid accountability for Korkmaz and his confederates, not ensure it. The Turkish suspect’s extradition to the United States could prove to be key not only to the recovery of the U.S. Treasury’s defrauded assets, but also to exposing sanctions evasion, terrorism finance, drug trafficking, and money laundering schemes involving the Venezuelan and Iranian regimes and their proxies.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran in Latin America Iran Sanctions Iran-backed Terrorism Lebanon Sanctions and Illicit Finance Turkey