MANHATTAN (CN) – A Turkish gold trader whose testimony for the U.S. government could embarrass officials here and abroad offered to wage “economic jihad” for Iran, prosecutors revealed Tuesday.
“Trial is going to pull back the curtain on a fraud of global proportions,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton told a jury.
Kicking off the trial of Mehmet Atilla, a bank manager at Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, Denton delivered his opening statement today hours after revealing that the government struck a plea deal with Atilla’s original co-defendant, Reza Zarrab.
Prosecutors had painted Zarrab at the center of the money-laundering scheme in the months-long lead-up to trial, but Zarrab’s new status as a key government witness is expected to have repercussions for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former White House national-security adviser Michael Flynn.
“In order to conduct the economic jihad, Iran didn’t need soldiers,” Denton said. “Iran needed a banker.”
The remark speaks to a letter Zarrab wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, offering his “jihad” in the form of laundering millions of dollars.
Denton did not mention either Erdogan or Flynn directly in his opening statement, but both the prosecution and the defense referred to the case as something out of a spy story.
For Atilla’s attorney, Victor Rocco, the case has all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster.
“This sounds like something out of a James Bond movie, a John le Carre novel,” Rocco said.
Prosecutors call Atilla the “architect” of two systems to evade U.S. sanctions: one involving a network of couriers carting off suitcases filled with gold and another disguising assets as humanitarian food aid.
Atilla’s attorney argued that his client is hardly central character material for this drama.
Zarrab is a multimillionaire playboy with a pop-star wife and ties to his country’s president, and Atilla received a $120,000-a-year salary working for his government.
“That’s what the evidence in this case is all about: a dedicated hard-working civil servant caught in an international storm,” Rocco said, referring to Atilla.
Prior to his newly announced plea deal, Zarrab had been one of dozens connected to Turkey’s ruling party implicated in a 2013 corruption scandal.
Prosecutors promised Tuesday that the jury would hear testimony from an officer behind the probe, which Turkish President Erdogan has described as an attempted “judicial coup.”
With opponents of Erdogan questioning why charges have seemed to bounce off the investigation's more powerful targets, Rocco accused Zarrab on Tuesday of bribing his way out of trouble.
“By testifying against Mehmet Atilla, Zarrab hopes he can buy freedom, a shortcut back to his lavish life with the rich and famous," Rocco said. "He's a liar, a cheat, a corrupter of men on a staggering scale ... a one-man crime wave."
Even behind bars, Rocco claimed, Zarrab tried to get his hands on alcohol, drugs and women by paying off a prison guard.
Rocco also noted that Zarrab kept former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on retainer in order to escape his prosecution.
A former Donald Trump campaign surrogate, Giuliani hinted at his White House connections earlier this year in an affidavit revealing he would seek a “diplomatic solution” to spring Zarrab from prison.
“When all those legal fees failed to get him what he wanted, Atilla became Zarrab’s ace in the hole,” Rocco told a jury today.
Giuliani is not the only Trump ally in Zarrab’s corner. His co-counsel for Zarrab's diplomatic negotiations was Michael Mukasey, a onetime U.S. attorney general appointed by former Preisdent George W. Bush.
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.
NBC later cited three sources in reporting that Mueller’s probe is looking into whether Flynn discussed ways to free Zarrab.
In a ruling released before trial this morning, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman urged the government to shed more light on the elusive businessman slated to testify on Wednesday.
“The government should also make clear that the mystery witness is Mr. Reza Zarrab,” the 3-page opinion states.
Zarrab had skipped months of court appearances before today’s revelations. Rumors swirled during that time about whether he had flipped to the U.S. government, and if so, what the terms of that agreement were.
“The government should now make its case so the public will know what it is all about,” Judge Berman added later.
Zarrab’s plea allocution has not been made available by press time.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.