WASHINGTON — A 19th-century Midwest skyscraper is the unlikely stage for an acutely modern drama involving political speech, foreign lobbying and the fraught relations between Armenia and Turkey.
On Thursday, the Ohio Elections Commission is set to rule on whether a challenger made reprehensible false statements when he claimed that a Republican incumbent had taken "blood money" from Turkish interests.
"This is not an acceptable way to campaign; you can't just run out and accuse people of taking bribes," Bruce Fein, an attorney with the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund, said Tuesday.
With its colorful cast of characters and superheated rhetoric, the case known as Schmidt v. Krikorian is far more theatrical than the conventional political dispute.
Participants include Fein's opposite number, Armenian-American lawyer Mark Geragos, whose past clients have ranged from former California Rep. Gary Condit to convicted wife murderer Scott Peterson. Fein, a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, and Geragos have been regular guests on various cable-television shows.
Some allegations, too, seem torn from the tabloids, including an unproven but incendiary claim that female foreign agents have been used to sexually entrap members of Congress.
"These Turkish organizations and operatives, if they can't do it by money, they do it by blackmail, so they collect information on sexual lives and other information like that," Sibel Edmonds, who served several months as a part-time contract translator for the FBI, declared in an Aug. 8 deposition.
Turkish Embassy officials couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday, but Fein dismissed Edmonds' claims as a "phantasmagoria" and an "utterly ridiculous concoction." Edmonds didn't play any role in challenger David Krikorian's campaign, and Fein contends that Edmonds was summoned as a witness in order to create a buzz with "salacious" allegations.
The one certainty in the case is that the seven-member Ohio Elections Commission won't end the debate no matter how it rules Thursday.
"It's certainly an opportunity to delve deeper into the extent of foreign government manipulation of the American political system," said Elizabeth Chouldjian, a spokeswoman for the Armenian National Committee of America.
The hearing Thursday at the election commission's headquarters in downtown Columbus is the second in the "blood money" complaint. The complaint arises from a 2008 campaign in which Krikorian contended that Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, had accepted $30,000 in Turkish contributions in exchange for opposing an Armenia genocide resolution.
Lawmakers whose districts include many Armenian-Americans long have supported the congressional resolution's characterization of a genocide. The resolution says that 1.5 million Armenian "men, women and children were killed" during the Ottoman Empire's final years. The empire was based in what's now the Republic of Turkey.
Other lawmakers, as well as the Pentagon and the State Department, oppose the genocide resolution as diplomatically disastrous because of how it would alienate Turkey, a key NATO ally.
Some stress uncertainty about what happened in the collapsing Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.
"I'm not a student of history, and I'm still trying to figure it all out," Schmidt repeated several times during an Aug. 24 deposition, adding that, "I wasn't there."
Krikorian, who ran as an independent last year but has since identified himself as a Democrat, claimed that Schmidt's opposition to the Armenian genocide resolution was tied to her campaign contributions.
"I ask the people of Ohio's 2nd Congressional District to ask themselves if our representative should be taking money from a foreign government," Krikorian declared in one campaign flier.
The contributions alluded to included money that Schmidt raised in a February 2008 event at a restaurant called Cafe Istanbul, where participants included Turkish Coalition of America President Lincoln McCurdy.
"We have a member of Congress from Ohio who is willing to stand up to the Armenian lobby, and it is important for the Turkish community to support her," a fundraising e-mail from the Turkish Coalition of America said.
Schmidt, though, said that she didn't ask people why they contributed to her campaigns, declaring her "hope that it's because they believe I'm a great American."
Contributions to campaigns by foreign governments are illegal. McCurdy said in his deposition that his organizations relied on U.S. citizens and legal residents for campaign contributions.
If the commission decides that Krikorian lied or spoke with "reckless disregard" for the truth or falsity of his statements, commissioners could reprimand him or forward the case for possible criminal prosecution under an Ohio "false statement" law.
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