MANHATTAN (CN) – Fueling rumors of a plea deal that will stain the Trump White House, a Turkish gold trader slated to stand trial next week on money-laundering charges remained curiously absent Thursday from a court hearing on his case.
Reza Zarrab’s no-show in court this morning — his latest in a month-long string — comes on the heels of news reports of a plea deal implicating not only Zarrab’s seven co-defendants but also top U.S. and Turkish leaders.
At the end of a final pretrial conference this morning, defense attorney Victor Rocco, who represents co-defendant bank manager Mehmet Atilla, demanded answers.
“Is Mr. Zarrab going to be on trial with Mr. Atilla or not?” Rocco asked.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman left the mystery open.
“The one perk of being a judge is that you don’t have to answer questions, as witnesses and lawyers do,” Berman said Thursday.
“I would just say keep your eye on the docket,” he added.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons listed Zarrab’s status as “Released” as of Nov. 8.
Zarrab’s brief mention at the end of a two-hour hearing Thursday deepened international intrigue that has been brewing since his arrest last year on charges that he laundered tens of millions of dollars to Iran.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lobbied two U.S. administrations since that time for Zarrab’s release.
While former President Barack Obama rebuffed those overtures, criticizing Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism, President Donald Trump has loaded up the White House with allies from Turkey, where Trump has real estate interests.
As part of his probe of Russian interference in the 2016, the Department of Justice’s special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly investigating whether Trump’s former National Security adviser Michael Flynn considered kidnapping a Turkish dissident living in Pennsylvania and delivering him to Erdogan in exchange for $15 million.
The Daily Beast noted the possible overlap between events on Thursday morning, citing a former U.S. Attorney as stating that inmates in pretrial detention can sometimes be moved when they are cooperating with the government.
NBC later cited three sources in reporting that Mueller's probe is looking into whether Flynn discussed ways to free Zarrab.
Flynn is a registered agent for the Turkish government, and Trump’s former campaign aide Rudy Giuliani represented Zarrab in plea negotiations earlier this year.
Prosecutors say Zarrab also has deep ties with Iran’s former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even offering money-laundering services as an “economic jihad” to the ex-leader in a personal letter.
That letter will likely come into evidence at trial, despite objections by co-defendant Atilla, a manager at Turkey’s state-run Halkbank.
Rejecting arguments that talk of “jihad” would be inflammatory, Judge Berman emphasized that he would instruct the jury that prosecutors have not accused the defendants of terrorism ties.
After the hearing, Atilla’s attorney Rocco told reporters that he expected the speculation about Zarrab to resolve within a day or two.
“I’d love him to be a witness,” Rocco said of Zarrab. “He’s walking reasonable doubt.”