ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – Just hours into deliberations, a jury found a former business partner of convicted ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn guilty of acting as an illegal lobbyist for the Turkish government.
Bijan Kian, 66-year-old Iranian-American businessman who also goes by Bijan Rafiekian, was found guilty of conspiracy and failure to register as a foreign agent.
The charges stemmed from lobbying work done by Kian and Flynn in 2016 aimed at discrediting Fethullah Gulen, a cleric Turkish President Recep Erdogan has blamed for a failed coup against him.
Jurors deliberated for less than six hours at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Despite their guilty verdict, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga indicated last week he may acquit Kian on both charges due to a lack of evidence.
As vice chairman of Flynn’s Alexandria-based consulting firm Flynn Intel Group, prosecutors claimed Kian helped hide work on a secret lobbying campaign that ran from September to November 2016.
Prosecutors said Kian and Dutch-Turkish businessman Kamil Ekim Alptekin – who was also indicted last year but never appeared in court to face charges – conspired to hide $600,000 in payments given to Flynn Intel Group from the Turkish government for a project aimed at helping Turkey extradite Gulen.
But during the week-long trial, Judge Trenga said the evidence was “very, very circumstantial” and “speculative.” In particular, he took issue with a lack of evidence indicating Turkey was directly involved in the scheme against Gulen. Prosecutors were unable to provide a paper trail of emails or text messages explicitly showing who directly controlled Flynn Intel Group’s actions.
But other evidence presented at trial persuaded jurors to convict Kian, like testimony from Jim Courtovich, managing partner of Sphere Consulting. Courtvich told jurors he met with Flynn, Kian and Alptekin in November 2016 just ahead of the U.S. election. Sphere was hired to produce a documentary smearing Gulen but Alptekin reportedly lost his temper when he learned Sphere’s work on the project would not also include congressional hearings, stories in major news outlets or the launching of federal investigations into Gulen.
“What do I tell Ankara?” Courtovich recalled Alptekin saying angrily at the meeting.
Questions over how Kian recorded payments also appeared to generate suspicion in jurors: he first labeled payments to Alptekin’s company Inovo BV as “outsider adviser” fees, and they were later listed as “refunds.”
Judge Trenga will issue a ruling on whether to acquit Kian on Sept. 5.
Sentencing is currently set for Oct. 18. Kian faces up to 15 years in prison.