An advocacy group is urging the Justice Department to investigate Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz for doing work for Turkish Airlines without registering as a foreign agent — but Oz says he just made a couple of videos.
The celebrity doctor is featured in promotional videos shown to passengers of Turkish Airlines, which is 49.12 percent owned by the Turkish government, according to a 2015 FARA filing by public relations firm Golin/Harris.
“Dr. Oz clearly serves as a foreign agent on behalf of the foreign principal Turkish Airlines,” Armenian National Committee of America executive director Aram Hamparian wrote in a letter Tuesday demanding that assistant attorney general Matthew Olsen launch an inquiry.
“These campaigns constituted informational materials disseminated in interstate commerce by the foreign agent on behalf of the foreign principal but did not include the conspicuous statement labeling them accordingly as is required by the statute,” Hamparian wrote.
A former Justice Department official who oversaw enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act told The Post that the charge may have merit.
In 2017, Oz “collaborated with Turkish Airlines on its ‘Fly Good Feel Good’ project, which was designed to provide an even more comfortable and healthy travel experience to its passengers’,” Hamparian wrote. “More recently, Dr. Oz appeared in an advertising campaign for Turkish Airlines including in a four-minute informational video offering a medical seal of approval to the airline’s COVID-19 safety procedures.”
The letter argues that Oz may be eligible for up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Hamparian told The Post that the Justice Department must act to protect “our nation’s national security interests,” but a person close to Oz said he served as a celebrity spokesman and nothing more.
“Like many other well-known people, Dr. Oz was in promotional videos for the airline,” Oz campaign communications director Brittany Yanick added in a statement.
“Other spokespeople for Turkish Airlines included Morgan Freeman and Ben Affleck. Like Dr. Oz, they were not required to register under FARA,” she said. “This political hit is ridiculous. Individuals and firms working to advance the bona fide commercial interests of a foreign business are not subject to FARA and not required to register. DOJ has repeatedly recognized this longstanding exemption under the law including in several recent advisory opinions.”
But David Laufman, who oversaw the Justice Department’s FARA enforcement from 2014 to 2018, told The Post he would not immediately dismiss the complaint.
“I think it would be appropriate for [the Justice Department] to undertake logical, analytical and investigative steps to determine whether Dr. Oz acted as a public relations counsel or publicity agent in the United States on behalf of Turkish Airlines,” Laufman said. “If he did, he likely would have an obligation to register unless he qualified for an exemption.”
The most obvious exemption would be a “commercial” exemption. However, that doesn’t apply if the work directly promotes the non-commercial interests of a foreign government, Laufman said.
“In my experience, a foreign government ownership interest as high as 49.12 percent would contribute to a conclusion by the Justice Department that otherwise registrable work on behalf of that entity in the United States — such as public relations work — likely would not qualify for the [commercial] exemption because the activities would directly promote the public or political interests of the foreign government,” Laufman said.
Laufman, who now advises private clients on how to navigate FARA issues, oversaw an increase in cases relating to the law while chief of the counterintelligence and export control section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
“There are some timing considerations, with respect to the upcoming election in Pennsylvania, that might bear upon when [the Justice Department] might initiate such an investigation…. But I don’t think the department is precluded from undertaking non-public investigative steps,” Laufman said.
“The main purpose of the department’s enforcement effort with regard to FARA is to bring about compliance through registration and disclosure,” he added. “Only if the department determined someone willfully violated the statute – for example, they knew they had an obligation to register, and didn’t – would criminal prosecution be warranted.”
Some people “view it as stigmatizing to register” and therefore choose not to do so, Laufman said, though motives for non-registration vary.
“If an investigation yielded communications where the party under investigation acknowledged the need to register under FARA, but an intention not to do so, that would be a red flag of willfulness and grounds for potential criminal prosecution,” he said.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Oz, 61, gained fame as a regular medical guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show before launching his own program in 2009. His parents immigrated to the US from Turkey and he holds Turkish citizenship.
Former President Donald Trump endorsed Oz, who if elected would be the nation’s first Muslim senator, last month ahead of the crowded May 17 Republican primary. Many former Trump aides work for businessman David McCormick and three other candidates have had double-digit support in recent primary polls.
Oz said in March that he would give up his Turkish citizenship if he is elected — after previously saying he would keep it and forego classified briefings.
Turkey is ruled by autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who notoriously watched in 2017 as his guards attacked Kurdish-American and Armenian-American protesters in DC. Oz says he voted for Erdogan’s challenger in Turkey’s 2018 election.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is favored to win the Democratic primary for the open Senate seat.