ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – The case against a business associate of former national security adviser Michael Flynn went to the jury Monday, which will determine whether he illegally lobbied at the direction of Turkey without telling the federal government.
During closing arguments Monday, prosecutors said 66-year-old Bijan Rafiekian tried to carefully mask who was behind a project he and Flynn worked on that aimed to discredit Fethullah Gulen, a cleric Turkish President Recep Erdogan has blamed for a 2016 failed coup against him.
“They tried to subvert the American process so Erdogan could get his hands on Gulen,” U.S. Attorney James Gillis told the jury Monday.
The Turkish government has long sought to extradite Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and runs a network of schools and charitable organizations, but the Justice Department has declined. The project Rafiekian, also known as Bijan Kian, worked on at Flynn Intel Group culminated in an op-ed published in The Hill on election day 2016 under Flynn’s name that called on the U.S. to extradite Gulen to Turkey.
Kian says the project was for a business owned by a Dutch-Turkish businessman named Kamil Ekim Alptekin and was aimed towards making Turkey seem more favorable to international business and investment.
But walking through a string of emails between Kian and Alptekin that dated back to shortly after the failed coup, Gillis said Monday the project from the beginning had the interest and approval of people at the highest levels of the Turkish government. In addition, the project always focused directly on Gulen.
When Kian and Alptekin changed the name of the project from “Truth” to “Confidence” in August 2016, it was nothing more than an attempt at subterfuge, as was the revelation at the same time that Alptekin’s company would bankroll the effort.
It was all a ploy to hide from the U.S. government that the men were acting on behalf of Turkey, Gillis told jurors.
All the while, Alptekin was sharing the progress of the project with officials in the Turkish government and relaying to Kian how they felt about it. Flynn, Kian and Alptekin even met with Turkish government officials in New York City in September 2016 where they discussed Gulen, Gillis said.
Gillis also told the jury Kian lied on a form he eventually filed with the U.S. government under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA. The form downplayed the involvement of the Turkish government in the project and concealed the origins of Flynn’s op-ed, which Kian wrote and shared with Alptekin before it published.
But to Kian’s attorney Mark MacDougall, his client was at most guilty of following the advice of high-powered lawyers whose counsel he sought when he was trying to figure out if he had to register as a foreign agent.
“Essentially what the government is asking you to do is convict a man because the form he filled out was not the one the government likes,” MacDougall, with the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said.
The FARA form filed in March mentioned the New York City meeting and acknowledged that because the work was related to Gulen, it “could be considered” to have benefited the Turkish government. But MacDougall pointed out the government did not present bank records showing the Turkish government ever paid Flynn Intel Group for the project.
The FARA filing also came at a time when neither Kian nor Flynn had either the need to or the luxury of lying to the federal government, MacDougall said during closing arguments Monday.
Kian, after all, was out of a job after Flynn Intel Group shuttered when Flynn took a job in the Trump administration. Flynn himself had just been unceremoniously dismissed from the White House after a short stint as national security adviser, MacDougall noted.
MacDougall also scoffed at the idea that the men would, at such a point in their lives, sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into this trickery by hiring some of the best lawyers in the world just to conceal information about a project that had been finished for months.
Flynn was a specter in the courtroom during closing arguments on Monday, as he was expected to be a star witness in the case against Kian before prosecutors on the eve of trial said they would not call him despite a federal judge delaying Flynn’s sentencing so he could cooperate in the case. Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to filing an inaccurate FARA form, but after switching attorneys said he had never actually read the filing.
The jury will begin deliberations in the case against Kian on Tuesday morning.