An Inmate and a Scholar ; Orhun Hakan Yalıncak

An Inmate and a Scholar; Orhun Hakan Yalıncak By Alison Leigh Cowan / New York Times

An Inmate and a Scholar

When the newest issue of Columbia Journal of European Law came out last month featuring a 31-page scholarly article on Turkish nationals in the European Union, the author’s note at the bottom of the first page was the only indication that the writer was not your typical Ivy Leaguer.

And with that, an improbable New York tale grew more improbable.

The author is identified as Orhun Hakan Yalincak, a recent graduate of Oxford University’s Master of Science program and Durham University’s undergraduate law program, prime training grounds for British barristers and solicitors.

“Has he been in the news before?” asked a bewildered Harry M. Jacobs, the Columbia graduate who was the journal’s editor in chief when the article was submitted.

Though the article’s author is using a different first name, he has been in the news before. Mr. Yalincak (pronounced YAL-in-chak) not that long ago spent roughly three years in federal prison for perpetrating an elaborate fraud that caused millions of dollars of losses for investors, deceived a major university and left behind a cloud of litigation that is still fogging up appellate courts — even though federal agents escorted him to Turkish Air Flight 002 bound for Istanbul after he was ordered deported five years ago.

Hakan Yalincak

Hakan Yalincak was deported five years ago but now has degrees from two British universities. Credit: Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

How the ever-enterprising Mr. Yalincak achieved this turnaround, wrapping himself in the colors of two of the world’s most prestigious universities and inching closer to his dream of becoming a lawyer, is a remarkable tale — but one that he is not eager to talk about. Nor did the British universities, his lawyers or even the State University of New York, which had a mere supporting role, want to comment when contacted.

“Nothing would surprise me,” said Paul D. Hinman, a now-retired postal inspector who was at the fore of the criminal investigation. “All I can say is he was brilliant and probably capable of doing anything.”

Contacted in Turkey, where he is a lawyer in training, Mr. Yalincak, now 29, provided some written statements through his lawyers but indicated he was reluctant to talk.

“Here’s a guy who paid a very heavy price and is trying to put his life back together,” said Ilan K. Reich, a New York lawyer and mentor to Mr. Yalincak, who came to the younger man’s attention for his ability to regain the law license he had lost after going to prison in 1987 as a member of an insider trading ring.

“It’s not that he’s averse to publicity and trying to hide,” Mr. Reich said of Mr. Yalincak. “But he’s trying to survive.”

The stain never leaves, Mr. Reich added. “I’m 27 years away, and it still comes up,” he said.

When he was last in the news, Mr. Yalincak was a fast-talking undergraduate at New York University, still needing rides from his parents and claiming to be running a wildly successful hedge fund in Greenwich, Conn. Otherwise sophisticated investors threw at least $7 million at the young Midas, especially after hearing — from his mother — about his moneyed pedigree back in Turkey and the $21 million his family had promised N.Y.U., where Mr. Yalincak was in his fifth year, majoring in history. In those days, court records show, Mr. Yalincak was known mostly as Hakan, or sometimes Hagan.

Postal inspectors looking for credit card fraud discovered that the computers in Mr. Yalincak’s Greenwich office were as decorative as the women hired to dazzle the customers. “I thought it was going to be a typical credit card case, and then it wasn’t,” Mr. Hinman recalled.

By then, he and his partner, an F.B.I. agent named Russell C. Day, a certified public accountant, had ascertained that Mr. Yalincak’s mother, Ayfer, had run afoul of the law herself in 1994 in Indiana, by assuming the identity of a “Dr. Irene Kelly” and practicing medicine there without a license. Suspicions flared after “Dr. Kelly” nearly killed an emergency room patient. Mr. Yalincak; his little sister, Hale; Ayfer; and her husband, Omer, hit the road, according to Special Agent Day’s sworn declaration.

The family moved to Birmingham, Ala., where Ms. Yalincak was briefly “Irene Imrag,” an internist focused on Medicare and Medicaid, and then on to Boulder, Colo., where she became “Dr. Elaine Tozman,” a “practicing Christian” who had suffered religious persecution in Turkey and was now eager to become a missionary.

After a few more detours, they ended up in Bristol, Conn., where she was apprehended and returned to Indiana, where she served roughly a year in prison.

Hakan Yalincak Ofis

Investigators found that in a Greenwich, Conn., office where Hakan Yalincak, then still an undergraduate, claimed to be operating a thriving hedge fund, the computers were merely decorative. Credit: Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

Much as they had suspected, the authorities soon determined that the $1.25 million that Mr. Yalincak had given New York University with fanfare — the only morsel of the $21 million feast N.Y.U. ever tasted — was, in fact, stolen from investors. It was hard to say which was worse for the school: having to refund the ill-gotten money, less expenses, or the embarrassment of having to admit that it had toasted the Yalincaks at a gala starring Mr. Yalincak at the piano; established a chair of Ottoman studies in the family’s honor; and etched the “Yalincak” name on a downtown lecture hall that sat where the Bottom Line rock club had long reigned, at the corner of West Fourth and Mercer Streets.

“He took N.Y.U. for a ride,” Mr. Hinman said. “That’s the kind of salesman qualities he had, and he was only 19 or 20.”

Arrested in May 2005, Mr. Yalincak eventually pleaded guilty to bank fraud and wire fraud, but he did not go quietly. In a bid for leniency, he cooperated against former lawyers, business associates and cellmates and said that he had turned over 15 boxes of sensitive information, 160,000 emails and secret recordings to authorities — claims prosecutors insist were inflated.

Mr. Yalincak also lobbed lawsuits with mixed results at a variety of people, like a landlord he accused of kicking Celine, his Maltese; a journalist who had visited him in jail; and staff members at a Rhode Island detention center who treated him after he deliberately swallowed a paper clip to induce bleeding. He sued N.Y.U. for withholding the degree he was on track to earning until “intervening events,” as he called the arrest and its aftermath. A judge dismissed that one.

Rather than find the legal sparring off-putting, Mr. Yalincak expressed frustration that he could not do more. In June 2007, after 20 months of pretrial detention, United States District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton gave him a few months’ reprieve by placing him under house arrest until sentencing. Mr. Yalincak petitioned the court to be allowed Internet access so he could “pursue civil litigation that he has initiated.” Judge Arterton refused to let him on the web.

“He’s a smart kid, and when he was in college, he was writing briefs for attorneys,” said Robert McKay, a former teacher and missionary whose family members have been longtime supporters of Mr. Yalincak. “He is a person who will probably make contributions to society.”

Mr. Yalincak’s day of reckoning came on April 11, 2007, when he returned to Judge Arterton’s courtroom for sentencing. He was barely 23.

Sounding torn, Judge Arterton described the defendant as smart, young and talented. She did not doubt his desire to reform, but she worried if “in point of fact, he doesn’t yet know how.” His “moral compass,” she said, was simply “not present or not functioning.”

She also declined to reward him much for cooperating with prosecutors, when credibility issues made it unlikely the government would put him on the stand. She ordered him to serve 42 months in prison, 18 more than what his mother received after pleading guilty to wire fraud in the case. “I did what I did,” Mr. Yalincak told The Hartford Courant after his hearing, resigned to the long months in prison ahead.

He began serving his sentence in May 2007 and, with credit for his pretrial detention, completed it in September 2008, though he remained in federal custody for another seven months as immigration authorities sought to deport him. He was also subject to five years of supervised release tailored to his crimes, a period that began when he was released from prison. Its terms barred him from applying for credit cards without government clearance until $4.182 million of restitution was paid in full, and required him to “notify third parties of risks that may be occasioned by the circumstances of defendant’s conviction,” a rarely seen restriction much like belling a cat.

Whether that duty to notify others extended to university applications is not clear. In theory, deportees remain bound by the conditions of their supervised release, but as a practical matter, offshore conduct is difficult to track.

Mr. Yalincak has long nursed ambitions to be a lawyer. “He’s a natural,” Mr. Reich said. Shortly after arriving in Istanbul, he took the British law school admissions test and, according to his lawyers, was offered spots at several universities.

He entered Durham’s top-drawer program in the fall of 2009. He now has an L.L.B. with honors from one of England’s oldest universities, a Durham spokeswoman confirmed. “He does,” she wrote in an email, citing British privacy laws for her inability to “give further details or comment.”

Mr. Yalincak said through his lawyers that he did not check the box to disclose convictions on the systemwide application that British universities use. He said he was under no obligation to do so, given the instructions that applicants receive from colleges about what is required under British law. “The U.S. criminal conviction is not considered a ‘relevant conviction’ for educational purposes,” according to the statements from Mr. Yalincak released through one of his criminal defense lawyers, Jeffrey C. Kestenband. “However, it was disclosed in letters of recommendation from his attorneys as well as Mr. Yalincak’s personal statement.”

Durham’s handbook, in fact, advises “Undergraduate Applicants with Criminal Convictions” that, under the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, they need only disclose “relevant” convictions. There are exceptions built into the law, but relevance generally means offenses of a violent or sexual nature against a person, or something on the order of drug trafficking. Durham’s handbook also warns applicants that “excessive disclosure” may run afoul of the Data Protection Act of 1998.

Hakan Yalincak Hapis

Mr. Yalincak pleaded guilty to federal charges of bank fraud and wire fraud and received a 42-month sentence. Credit: Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

American universities vary as to whether they require applicants to disclose convictions. The University of Virginia, for example, expects students and applicants to furnish up-to-date information on arrests as well as convictions, and advises students to “err on the side of disclosure” if in doubt.

Since Mr. Yalincak was applying to an undergraduate program in law, he had to provide only his high school transcript, he said through his lawyers, but he nonetheless discussed his history at N.Y.U. in his personal essay, talking about, in his words, his “poor choices” and “the loss of everything I held dear, including my freedom.” Putting it on the table “strengthened (not hurt)” his application, Mr. Yalincak wrote in the statements that he released through Mr. Kestenband. Once enrolled at Durham’s St. Mary’s College, he favored the name Orhun for most purposes, sometimes using it as his first name and sometimes as his middle name. In his statements, Mr. Yalincak said he had simply reclaimed the middle name he had been given at birth in Turkey, one that had not been recorded properly by United States immigration authorities when the family arrived in the country in 1992.

That, however, is not what Mr. Yalincak claimed in 2005, when he sent handwritten letters to journalists from prison asserting that his full name at birth was Hakan Cem Yalincak, or in his 2006 guilty plea when he asserted that “my full and legal name is Hakan Yalincak,” or in similar documents he submitted to the federal government in 2009 when challenging his deportation. In any event, in his statements he wrote that he had not changed his legal name and that his official degrees, student cards, educational documents and passport used the name Hakan O. Yalincak.

After a few months on campus, he shared his story with “close circles of friends,” according to his lawyers and a classmate who was a confidant. Others who knew him only as Orhun, the name he favored overseas, had no idea. “Oh, my God, that is shocking, really,” an older student said upon hearing about the felonies. “He said his parents were doctors and he had a middle-class background.”

Mostly, though, he blended in. A friend, Yanxin Chen, wrote in an email that Mr. Yalincak’s classmates “judged him only on the present,” rather than passing judgment on his past. “He was helpful, caring and would share notes, draft essays and help with exam preparation (a quality exceedingly rare among students),” Mr. Chen wrote.

Mr. Yalincak volunteered at a law clinic, joined the staff of The Durham Law Review and pounded out research papers on topics as varied as the enforceability of prenuptial agreements and “gender neutrality” in women’s prisons. The article that ran in the Columbia University journal appears to be a reworking of his honors thesis at Durham.

He self-published an e-book in 2009 called “Step-by-Step Post-Deportation Guide for Those Forced Apart,” which offers advice on gaining re-entry to the United States after being legally barred. It opens with a quote from James Madison — one also used in his mother’s 2007 sentencing memo.

All the while, he never gave up trying to make something of the 120 credits he had from N.Y.U. According to postings on sites like LinkedIn, Mr. Yalincak transferred 96 of those credits, the maximum allowed by the State University of New York, to one of its offshoots, Empire State College. Geared to helping adults continue their education, Empire State has no campus. All 20,000 students work individually, often online, which allowed Mr. Yalincak to participate from afar.

Despite some conflicting posts on whether he completed his degree, Mr. Yalincak has claimed that SUNY awarded him a bachelor’s in history in 2012.

Empire State’s spokesman, David Henahan, declined to release any information or confirm the degree, citing its privacy policy.

After Durham, Mr. Yalincak headed to Oxford University to study criminology and criminal justice. There, he claims and friends confirm, he earned a master’s, with merit, in 2013. Oxford officials, unlike Durham’s, would not confirm the degree, citing privacy laws.

These days, Mr. Yalincak lives in Turkey, where he is conducting grant-based research, publishing and taking courses like Turkish constitutional law that he would need to practice law there.

Interviews, together with various appellate briefs that keep coming, make it clear that he harbors hopes of returning to the United States.

His father and sister have both obtained green cards, and Mr. Yalincak has been vigorously pursuing legal remedies that might allow them to sponsor him despite his felony convictions.

In the meantime, his current LinkedIn bio archly describes his previous work in finance as “a learning experience,” and an academic paper he posted online in August, exploring whether prior convictions ought to increase sentence severity, is a similar display of understatement.

The author’s note describes him as a graduate of Durham and Oxford, before adding, “In addition to the above studies, the author has also previously studied in New York.”

By Alison Leigh Cowan / New York Times

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 8, 2014, on Page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: An Inmate and a Scholar