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Turkish businessman extradited to US pleads not guilty to money laundering, fraud charges

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A Turkish businessman wanted on money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction charges who was extradited from Austria to the United States on July 15 has pleaded not guilty in a Utah court, a report by the Voice of America Turkish service said on Tuesday.

Sezgin Baran Korkmaz pleaded not guilty at his first appearance in a US courtroom Monday in Salt Lake City, where he is accused of laundering more than $133 million in illegal proceeds through bank accounts he controlled in Turkey and Luxembourg.

Following the plea, US Magistrate Judge Jared Bennett ordered Korkmaz held behind bars at the request of prosecutors, adding that he would be appearing before Utah District Judge Jill Parrish, who is presiding over the trial, at the next hearing scheduled for Sept. 21.

Korkmaz was arrested in Austria in June of last year and had been fighting extradition to the United States, telling a Turkish reporter from jail that he would rather face justice at home, where he is also wanted for money laundering and fraud.

However, he was extradited from Austria to the US on Friday and escorted by US Marshals first to New York and then to Salt Lake City, Utah.

According to the US indictment, Korkmaz and his co-conspirators were involved in a scheme to defraud the US Treasury by filing false claims for more than $1 billion in tax credits allegedly for the production and sale of biodiesel by their company, Washakie Renewable Energy LLC.

Jacob and Isaiah Kingston pleaded guilty in July 2019 to federal charges and testified in 2020 at the trial in Utah of another co-conspirator, Levon Termendzhyan, who was convicted of all charges.

The Justice Department said Korkmaz faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each count of money laundering conspiracy, wire fraud and obstruction of an official proceeding.

The United States had been insisting on his extradition from Austria because the likelihood of Ankara extraditing him should he have been sent back to Turkey was low.

A large part of the reason lies in Washington’s refusal to hand over a Turkish cleric resident in the US whom President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes plotted a failed coup against him in 2016.

According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Korkmaz played a role in Ankara’s efforts to curry favor with former president Donald Trump in his first years in the White House.

The investigative group also alleged that Korkmaz facilitated a 2018 trip for Americans linked to Trump who sought to secure US pastor Andrew Brunson’s release from prison in Turkey.

The pastor’s fate became a major issue for Trump, who thrust him to the fore of US-Turkish relations until Brunson’s eventual release in late 2018.

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