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Erdogan overheard telling son to get rid of cash as Turkey corruption probe takes new twist

The corruption scandal surrounding Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan erupted again Tuesday after telephone wiretaps surfaced in which he purportedly instructed his son to get rid of enormous sums of cash the family was keeping in different homes.

An agitated Erdogan told Parliament on Tuesday that the recordings were an “immoral montage” and called their release a “despicable and treacherous act.”

But he didn’t dispute the contents or the authenticity of the voices. Instead he confirmed the outlines of a related scandal – that other branches of the Turkish government have been wiretapping him and other top politicians.

“They have been eavesdropping on our ministers, our MP’s (members of Parliament) and all of their families . . . for years,” he said, in an apparent reference to the Turkish police and judiciary. “They even eavesdropped on the state’s encrypted lines. A president cannot speak with a prime minister without being wiretapped in an instant.”

He called it the “biggest eavesdropping scandal in Turkish history.”

Pro-government newspapers this week reported that thousands of people, including Erdogan, the chief of the Turkish intelligence agency, politicians and business leaders have been wiretapped. The Istanbul prosecutor said Tuesday that he’s confirmed some 2,280 cases in a continuing investigation.

The purported voice recordings, posted Monday evening on YouTube – and drawing more than 2 million viewers in less than 24 hours – were made Dec. 17, just as judicial authorities mounted raids on politicians, their families, businessmen and bankers.

In the first of the purported intercepts, Erdogan is heard telling his son, Bilal, that the authorities had searched 18 homes already in an anti-corruption operation, including those belonging to the sons of three Cabinet ministers. “Now I’m telling you, whatever you have in the house, get rid of it, OK?” he said in the 8 a.m. phone call, according to the transcript posted by Aydinlik, an English-language Turkish daily newspaper.

In subsequent calls, Bilal, 35, allegedly told his father that he and his close relatives were having a hard time disposing of vast sums of money. Shortly before midnight, in the fourth such call, he reported he still had “30 million euros ($39 million) that we could not yet get rid of” and suggested they give them to a businessman “or buy a flat.” His father’s purported reply: “Whatever, we will deal with it.”

Bilal at one point asks: “Do you want all of it to disappear, or do you want to keep some money for yourself, father?” Erdogan’s purported response: “No, it can’t stay, son.”

The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, said sound engineers it had consulted had verified the authenticity of the recordings. The party, joined by the rightist Nationalist Action Party, called for Erdogan’s resignation. But the prime minister still enjoys a comfortable absolute majority in the Parliament.

After 11 years in office, a record of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and an economy that’s the envy of the rest of Europe, Erdogan is easily Turkey’s most popular politician and probably its most effective leader since the founding of the modern state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Although he fired four Cabinet ministers in December, he’s largely tried make the scandal go away, by reassigning thousands of prosecutors and police all around the country, and tightening the government’s grip on the appointment of judges and prosecutors and gaining new powers over access to the Internet.

But the scandal has hit the Turkish economy. The stock market fell several percentage points Tuesday, as did the Turkish lira.

Erdogan repeatedly called the corruption scandal an “attempted coup” by a “state within a state,” a reference to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who resides in rural Pennsylvania and is reputed to have enormous influence on the judiciary and the police here.

Last week, Erdogan brought up Gulen’s “interference” in internal affairs during a telephone call with President Barack Obama, the Turkish news agency Anka reported. “The person who is disrupting our internal affairs is a guest in your country,” Erdogan told Obama, according to the Anka news agency. “He is interfering in affairs here from there.” At a meeting with parliamentarians from his ruling Justice and Development party, Erdogan quoted Obama as replying: “We hear you.”

In Washington, the White House declined to confirm the account. A spokeswoman who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter did say that Obama had told Erdogan that “sound policies rooted in the rule of law” would help calm financial markets, encourage investment and benefit the future of Turkey.

Lesley Clark contributed to this story from Washington.

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