Flynn business partners charged with undisclosed lobbying for Turkey
A former business partner of Michael Flynn, US President Donald Trump's ex-national security adviser, and a businessman with ties to the Turkish government have been charged with undisclosed lobbying in the United States on behalf of Turkey, say reports.
Flynn's former business partner, Bijan Rafiekian, was indicted on two criminal counts in the US state of Virginia, including conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, Reuters reported on Monday.
The lobbying aimed at ensuring the extradition to Turkey of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a rival of Recep Tayyip Erdogan whom the Turkish president has accused of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup.
Gulen, a one-time Erdogan ally who has lived in the US for nearly two decades, denies that accusation.
According to an indictment unsealed on Monday, Rafiekian conspired with Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin to illegally lobby US government officials and influence public opinion in the US against Gulen, the Washington Post reported.
Alptekin is accused of directing and funding Kian and Flynn’s work, and then lying in US filings about his role, Reuters reported. He is charged with the same crimes as Kian, as well as making false statements, but he remains in Turkey, the news agency said.
"The defendants sought to discredit and delegitimise the Turkish citizen in the eyes of politicians and the public, and ultimately to secure the Turkish citizen's extradition," attorneys for the Eastern District of Virginia said in the indictment, which does not explicitly name Gulen.
Source of tension
Gulen's extradition has been a major source of conflict in the Washington-Ankara relationship, as Erdogan's government has repeatedly demanded that the Trump administration send him back to Turkey to face trial for alleged crimes.
Turkey and the US are bound by a 1979 extradition treaty and the two countries must satisfy a series of legal procedures and meet evidential standards before any official extradition request is granted.
A clause in the treaty stipulates, however, that extradition will not be granted for an offence if it is of “a political character” or where extradition seeks to prosecute or punish a person “on account of his political opinions”.
In mid-November, US media reported that Trump had instructed federal law enforcement agencies to examine legal ways he could extradite Gulen in order to get Turkey to ease its pressure on Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Erdogan has been a leading voice in demanding accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
The Trump administration's requests were greeted with incredulity and anger by US officials, NBC News reported at the time. "At first there were eye rolls, but once they realised it was a serious request, the career guys were furious," said an official.
A Turkish official told NBC News that Ankara saw no link between the Gulen and Khashoggi cases, however.
"We definitely see no connection between the two," the official said. "We want to see action on the end of the United States in terms of the extradition of Gulen. And we're going to continue our investigation on behalf of the Khashoggi case."
Flynn paid to lobby for Turkey
Allegations that Flynn lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government are not new.
In March 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that he discussed the possibility of extraditing Gulen with Turkish government officials.
Citing former CIA director James Woolsey, the newspaper said Flynn met with Turkish government ministers in September 2016 when he was serving as an adviser on Trump’s presidential campaign team.
According to Woolsey, the discussion included the possibility of removing Gulen from the US without going through the extradition process, including “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away”.
A Flynn spokesman said at the time that the report was false, however, saying “no such discussion occurred”.
Also in March 2017, US Justice Department documents revealed that Flynn was paid $530,000 for lobbying work that "benefited the Republic of Turkey".
That businessman was Alptekin, one of the two Turkish citizens to be charged with undisclosed lobbying on Monday.
At that time, Flynn and his firm acknowledged the lobbying efforts "could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey" but that was disputed by Alptekin.
"It would be different if I was working for the government of Turkey, but I am not taking directions from anyone in the government," he told AP news agency last year.
On Monday, Reuters reported that the indictment against Alptekin and Rafiekian alleges that they sought to mask the involvement of Turkey's government by paying the Flynn Intel Group roughly $600,000 in fees through a Netherlands-based company, Inovo, which was controlled by Alptekin, Reuters reported.
The defendants sought to discredit and delegitimise the Turkish citizen in the eyes of politicians and the public, and ultimately to secure the Turkish citizen's extradition
- Eastern District of Virginia attorneys, in Monday's indictment
Justice Department filings in 2017 show that Flynn's consulting firm routed $80,000 in "consultancy fees" back to Inovo, the news agency said. Alptekin has previously described those payments as reimbursements for consulting work that was never finished.
Alptekin, who was chairman of the Turkey-US Business Council, told Reuters in prior interviews that the payments to Flynn came from his personal funds and from Inovo. He has rejected allegations that he was being directed by the Turkish government.
Flynn served as Trump's national security adviser at the start of his presidency.
He was fired shortly thereafter for failing to disclose that he discussed US sanctions on Russia in a phone call with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office.
He has been cooperating with an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Earlier this month, Mueller recommended that Flynn not face any prison time in exchange for his help in that probe.