U.S. judge Richard Berman, who is the judge presiding over Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab’s case, attended a symposium in Istanbul in 2014. Last week, I quoted a dialogue between Berman and Benjamin Brafman, the lawyer of Zarrab, at the first hearing in New York on this symposium.
It was Berman who first mentioned this symposium to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest and said, “The symposium was cosponsored by the United Nations Global Compact and a leading Istanbul law firm, formerly an affiliate of DLA Piper.”
But the United Nations has denied sponsorship while commenting to Hürriyet. United Nations Global Compact Speaker Margaret Fenwick stated that they were not sponsor of the event and sent a written statement reading: “The U.N. Global Compact did not have any role in organizing or inviting speakers and did not contribute to the cost of the 2014 Justice and Rule of Law Symposium.”
According to Fenwick’s message, the only connection between U.N. Global Compact and the symposium was an invitation sent to Ms. Christina Koulias, senior manager for legal and governance of the U.N. Global Compact, to participate in the event. Likewise, Yılmaz Argüden, the United Nations Global Compact Turkey’s chairman at that time, also said “they did not have an organizational or … financial contribution to the event.”
Last week, the partner of the Turkish law firm who sponsored the symposium pointed to Marmara University. But in my investigation, I didn’t see any institution other than the law firm which sent the invitation letters to the participants of the symposium, paid their airfare and hotel expenses and organized the event. Even the website established for the symposium with the address of www.uluslararasisempozyum.com was registered by the IT manager of the same law firm on March 7, 2014.
So what is this all about? What are the consequences of the false information provided by Berman on this symposium at the beginning of such an important trial? Under normal conditions, it should not cause any doubts about a fair trial in this matter.
1) Consider the period in which the symposium was held. After being taken into custody in the Dec. 17, 2013, graft probe, Zarrab was released 70 days later. Rule of law had vanished. And Berman’s speech at the symposium also emphasized the universal values of law. Moral support for such a meeting was reasonable for everyone’s account.
2) A judge’s such as Berman participation in such a trip funded by private sponsors is part of an ethical debate. There are non-profit organizations such as “Fix the Court,” “Judicial Watch” and “Center for Responsive Politics” suggest this might be inappropriate. But we also know that many judges continue to do so – like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February while staying for free at a lodge owned by a businessman whose company was involved with a case before the Supreme Court. They accept the invitations. They become a part of a newspaper story. That’s all.
But the problem is that we are not experiencing normal circumstances. And my disappointment as a journalist who has been following the Zarrab story since the graft probe and who wants to see Zarrab convicted because of what he did stems from the fact that this symposium issue might cause a bad appearance.
I called the chambers of Berman. I informed them about the statement of the U.N. Global Compact on the symposium. And two hours later his aide called and said Berman would not comment.
When I discussed the details of this story with Steven Schneebaum, who is one of the most prominent lawyers in Washington D.C. with more than 36 years of legal practice experience, he said: “If I were a judge and being invited to Paris by a French law firm to talk about rule of law, I wouldn’t hesitate a second. The important part is connection. That means the connection between the sponsor of the trip and the case.” But he also noted that “Supreme Court justices recuse themselves routinely from cases involving companies in which they may own one share of stock. Because it looks bad, the optics are bad.”
There is a risk of misuse of the issue of this symposium. And when you read the story published six days after the first hearing in a pro-government newspaper about this Turkish law firm, with several accusations against them, you see where this is going in the hand of the Turkish government, which sees Zarrab as a philanthropist.