Michael Flynn (left) with US President Donald Trump and the then chief-of-staff Reince Priebus (right) at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, in December 2016. Image Credit: Washington Post

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia: Federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment on Monday charging two business associates of Michael T. Flynn with acting as agents of the Turkish government, describing in remarkable detail how the three attempted to convince the United States to expel a rival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Throughout the fall of 2016, while Flynn served publicly as a key surrogate and foreign policy adviser to US President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, prosecutors say he and business partner Bijan Kian took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Turkish government to push for the extradition from the US of dissident cleric Fethullah Gulen. Their efforts, prosecutors said, were directed by Kamil Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman with close ties to the country’s leadership.

US law enforcement has repeatedly rejected Turkey’s efforts to bring Gulen back to his home country — despite intense pressure from Erdogan, who believes the cleric was responsible for a failed 2016 coup attempt. By prosecutors’ account, the foreign government found a powerful and enthusiastic ally in Flynn — one who was willing on the eve of the presidential election to pen an op-ed pushing for Gulen’s expulsion.

Flynn already admitted last year to lying about his business with the Turkish government and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in a deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. That almost certainly helped produce charges against Kian and Alptekin. But the indictment on Monday spells out for the first time how intimately Flynn was involved in the effort, which involved weekly conference calls to coordinate with Turkish officials.

Flynn’s piece in the Hill, which called Gulen “a radical cleric ... running a scam”, was the culmination of a months-long public and private lobbying campaign for which the Turkish government agreed to pay Flynn’s consulting firm $600,000 (Dh2.20 million), according to the indictment.

The money was funneled through a company run by Alptekin — who also arranged meetings and delivered guidance from his country’s leaders — to obscure that the effort was directed by Turkey, according to the indictment.

Kian and Alptekin are charged with conspiracy and acting as agents of a foreign government; Alptekin is also accused of making false statements. Kian — who also goes by the name Rafiekian — made his first appearance in Alexandria federal court on Monday morning. Alptekin, who notably co-chaired a conference on US-Turkey relations at Trump’s Washington hotel in 2017, remains in Turkey. While that event was being held, there was a violent clash between Turkish guards and protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence near Dupont Circle. Molly Toomey, a spokeswoman for Alptekin, said Alptekin had initially wanted to broker a contract between Flynn Intel Group and the Turkish government, but that never occurred and he ultimately hired the company himself.

“Ekim has never changed his story,” Toomey said. “He has always been perfectly clear that the government of Turkey did not participate in this project, and that he was the only person, and his company was the only entity directing the work and paying for the work.”

As the Mueller investigation has moved forward, the Justice Department has seemed to take a more aggressive posture in recent months toward prosecuting those who lobby for foreign interests without registering appropriately. Mueller had charged former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates with related crimes for their work in Ukraine, and the Justice Department recently reached a plea agreement with a Russian woman who it had accused of acting as a Kremlin agent in the US.

Flynn was set to be sentenced later on Tuesday for lying to FBI agents as part of a special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Prosecutors asked that he receive no prison time, citing his “substantial assistance”.

We are ready to engage on what needs to be done. I just finished in Ankara after several meetings today [July 27, 2016]. I have a green light to discuss confidentiality, budget and the scope of the contract.

- Bijan Kian, Business associate of Michael Flynn

On Monday night, prosecutors filed in Washington D.C. court the notes of FBI agents’ January 2017 interview with Flynn in which, he later admitted, he misled agents. The filings show that Flynn was asked about former US president Barack Obama-era sanctions that were announced on December 29, 2016, as punishment for Russia’s interference in the election and that he insisted he had not discussed them with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn claimed he had not even known about the newly-announced sanctions because he had been on vacation in the Dominican Republic, where he did not have access to television news and his government-provided BlackBerry was not working.

In fact, Flynn had called a senior transition official at Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, to talk about what he should say to Kislyak about the sanctions that had been announced, and he followed up later to report the upshot of the conversation with the ambassador, according to his plea agreement. People familiar with the case have said the official was Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland.

Trump allies who have alleged that Flynn was entrapped by the FBI have sought the release of the interview notes for months, believing they could reveal that Flynn was confused in the session or tricked by agents. The document, however, shows that Flynn spun an elaborate story to hide the details of his conversation with Kislyak.

As part of his plea, Flynn agreed that he had lied to FBI agents about that and the Turkey scheme.

The Turkey case against Kian and Alptekin, though, is being handled by Assistant US Attorneys James Gillis and Evan Turgeon in the Eastern District of Virginia, not the special counsel.

While Flynn’s efforts to have Gulen extradited from the US were previously known, the indictment offered new details.

Those involved dubbed their project the “Truth Campaign”, and later, “Operation Confidence”, and prosecutors described emails between the men discussing what they hoped to accomplish.

Negotiations began in July 2016, according to the court records, after the Justice Department told the Turkish government that Gulen could not be extradited without more evidence of wrongdoing. That was during the heart of Trump’s presidential campaign, when former president Obama was still in office.

“We are ready to engage on what needs to be done,” Kian wrote Alptekin, on July 27.

“I just finished in Ankara after several meetings today” with Turkish ministers, Alptekin responded to Kian and Flynn the next month, according to the indictment. “I have a green light to discuss confidentiality, budget, and the scope of the contract.”

That contract, drawn up in September 2016, required Flynn’s company, the Flynn Intel Group, to “deliver findings and results including but not limited to making criminal referrals” against Gulen.

That same month, according to the indictment, Flynn, Kian, and Alptekin met with high-level Turkish officials in New York to discuss the campaign. Over the next two months, Flynn’s firm lobbied a member of Congress, a congressional staffer and a state government official, according to the indictment.

A statement released by The Alliance for Shared Values, a nonprofit affiliated with Gulen, said the indictment “shows just how far the Erdogan government will go in breaking US law”.

Ergodan has engaged in a years-long, worldwide campaign against Gulen, a former political ally he now claims is a leader of a “terrorist organisation”. Inside Turkey, tens of thousands of people have been arrested and more than 100,000 civil servants fired for alleged links to Gulen. At least 80 Turkish nationals have been extradited from other countries and arrested. Turkish lobbying efforts to have Gulen himself extradited from Pennsylvania, where he has lived for two decades, continue to this day.

Following a phone call between Erdogan and Trump last week, Turkish officials told reporters that the US president said possible tax violations by Gulen were being reviewed. But administration officials dispute that there is a justifiable legal case for returning him to Turkey.

In the autumn of 2016, even with Flynn’s help, efforts were similarly unsuccessful. In October of that year, Alptekin complained that there had been no “smoking gun”. Kian, according to prosecutors, then produced a draft of the op-ed, which compared Gulen to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and argued the U.S. should not provide a “safe haven” for the cleric. “The arrow has left the bow!” Kian emailed Alptekin on November 4, 2016. “This is a very high profile exposure one day before the election.”

Flynn’s piece was published in the Hill on November 8, 2016, the day Trump was elected. It prompted concern in the Justice Department’s national security division, where officials wondered why Flynn, aspiring to be national security adviser to the next president, was parroting the talking points of the Turkish government.

Prosecutors alleged those involved used Alptekin’s company in the Netherlands to obscure the role of the Turkish government in directing the project, and that Alptekin himself was paid $40,000 for his involvement.

The Flynn Intel Group, based in Alexandria, Virginia, registered retroactively with the Justice Department as a foreign agent in March 2017, disclosing that Alptekin’s firm, Inovo BV, had paid it more than $500,000 for work that could benefit Turkey.

But according to the indictment, Kian and Alptekin lied about the involvement of Turkish government officials in the project, claiming it was done on behalf of an Israeli company seeking to do business in Turkey.

Prosecutors said the men falsely claimed that Flynn wrote the op-ed on his own and that Alptekin opposed its publication, and that the $40,000 payment to Alptekin’s firm was a refund for unperformed work.

The Flynn Intel Group also falsely claimed that a meeting in New York with Turkish officials on September 19, 2016, was just for background on the country, prosecutors said.

Flynn left the White House in February 2017 after it was revealed that he had lied about his conversation with a Russian ambassador. But Flynn had informed the incoming White House legal counsel during the transition that he might need to register as a foreign agent, and that apparently raised no alarms — even though he would soon become Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn’s firm is now defunct.

Kian was allowed out on a personal recognizance bond on Monday, with one condition: That he keep the probation office abreast of his movements. Defence attorney Robert Trout told a magistrate judge that Kian is in the process of relocating from California to the Washington D.C. area. Trout declined to comment after the proceeding.
— Washington Post