ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – Though special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign influence in the 2016 election has officially wrapped up, trial began Monday for a former business partner of convicted ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn accused of acting as an illegal agent of the Turkish government.
Bijan Rafiekian – a 66-year-old Iranian-American businessman who also goes by Bijan Kian – was indicted last December on a charge of conspiracy and failure to register as a foreign agent. The charges stemmed from lobbying work done by Kian and Flynn in 2016.
Prosecutors allege Kian and Flynn’s company, Flynn Intelligence Group, contracted Dutch-Turkish businessman Kamil Ekim Alptekin to run a smear campaign against Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric whom Turkish President Recep Erodgan accused of staging a failed coup there. Gulen has lived in political exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, for decades and maintains he had no involvement in the attempted overthrow.
Federal authorities have refused to extradite Gulen but prosecutors say Kian – with Flynn and Alptekin’s help – secretly lobbied the U.S. to change perceptions around Gulen at the behest of the Turkish government.
The campaign, which allegedly started with the creation of a lengthy video targeting Gulen that never saw the light of day, ended with an op-ed bearing Flynn’s name that appeared in The Hill on Election Day 2016.
During opening arguments Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gibbs told a jury Kian’s plan to usher along Gulen’s removal had been underway since a few months earlier, in August 2016.
Emails show the project was known first to Kian and Flynn as the “Truth” campaign. Later, Kian referred to the project as “Operation Confidence.”
In September, after weeks of exchanging emails with Alptekin, Kian, Flynn and Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs met in New York, according to prosecutors.
“Mr. Kian insists that the meeting had nothing to do with the project, but emails show 10 days before Kian told Flynn they would meet to discuss Operation Confidence with high-level Turkish officials,” Gibbs said. “And after the meeting, in emails, Kian shared concerns about the elevated expectations on Turkey’s side and urged they stay focused on Gulen.”
Of the lobbying projects Flynn Intelligence Group undertook in its short existence, the op-ed in The Hill was the only one ever completed and made public.
Prosecutors allege Kian and Alptekin hid evidence of their lobbying efforts for months, including receipt of a $600,000 payment to Flynn Intelligence Group for the article.
According to prosecutors, it was drafted by Kian but published under Flynn’s name and some $80,000 was paid to Alptekin through a shell company, Inovo BV, for the work. The company, Gibbs contends, is indirectly controlled by the Turkish government.
In 2017, Flynn, who briefly served as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, admitted he lied to the government about his relationship with Turkish and Russian entities during Trump’s 2016 campaign.
It was largely anticipated ahead of Kian’s trial that Flynn would testify as a star witness against his one-time business partner. But after more than a year of cooperation with in hopes of a lenient sentence, prosecutors revealed they had new doubts about Flynn – his recounting of events was no longer trustworthy, they argued in a motion filed Friday.
Flynn claims he never intentionally lied to prosecutors about the relationship he or Flynn Intelligence Group had with the Turkish government, but rather he merely signed off on foreign agent registration forms he initially believed were accurate.
That argument was echoed in opening remarks Monday from Kian’s defense attorney, Robert Trout, who has also represented former White House communications director Hope Hicks.
“He went to a lawyer and asked for help with FARA,” Trout said of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires foreign agents to register with the Justice Department. “The lawyer said, ‘Don’t file under that. File under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.’ He went to a lawyer to avoid doing the thing the government says he is hell-bent to do.”
Trout argued that his client never conspired with anyone, and even though Kian may share some of the same negative feelings toward Gulen that the Turkish government has, that is not a crime.
Kian sought out Alptekin because he knew he was “powerful” insider in Turkey and shared his views that Gulen was a source of instability in the region.
“They wanted Turkey to hire Flynn Intel Group, no question about it. They wanted Alptekin to be a consultant on the ground in Turkey,” Trout said.
The September 2016 meeting in New York was no conspiracy, the attorney argued, just a chance for the men to examine Gulen and his impact on the economic and political environment of the U.S.
It was the last time anyone from Flynn Intelligence Group would meet with a Turkish official, Trout told the jury, adding that another company had already been hired to investigate Gulen.
Kian appeared in court Monday donning thick-framed black glasses and a neatly-pressed suit. It is unclear if he will testify on his own behalf.
Flynn is now considered an unindicted co-conspirator in Kian’s case since prosecutors have cited possession of “multiple, independent pieces of information relating to the Turkish government’s efforts to influence U.S. policy on Turkey and Fethullah Gulen, including information relating to communications, interactions and a relationship between Ekim Alptekin and Michael Flynn.”
With Flynn off the witness list, the government is still poised to call the general’s son, Michael G. Flynn, to testify. Investigators believe the younger Flynn may have handled communications on the Gulen lobbying campaign, though he has not been charged with any crimes.
Kian faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. His trial in Alexandria, Virginia, is expected to last one week.
This marks the second criminal prosecution tied to special counsel Mueller that has gone to trial. Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager, was sentenced to just over seven years in prison after a jury found the one-time lobbyist guilty on multiple counts of bank and tax fraud last year.