Michael Flynn’s former business partner was convicted Tuesday of lobbying illegally for Turkey and conspiring to cover it up after a week-long trial in Alexandria federal court.
Bijan Rafiekian, 67, was running a consulting firm with Flynn that was hired in 2016 to advocate for the extradition from the United States of dissident cleric Fethullah Gulen.
While prosecutors had no evidence Turkey funded the project, jurors were convinced Dutch-Turkish businessman Kamil Ekim Alptekin was acting as a conduit for Turkish officials who wanted to exploit Flynn’s prominence as a surrogate for then-candidate Donald Trump. The effort culminated in an op-ed under Flynn’s name on Election Day calling for Gulen’s extradition.
“They tried to subvert the American political process,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James P. Gillis said Monday during closing arguments of Rafiekan’s trial. Rafiekian and Flynn, he said, were “in bed with the Government of Turkey to influence the American people.”
It is the first case to go to trial since the Justice Department began cracking down on unregistered foreign lobbying. But even with the jury verdict, Judge Anthony J. Trenga has signaled he may throw out the convictions for lack of evidence; he will rule Sept. 5. Sentencing is set for Oct. 18.
Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement the “verdict should stand as a deterrent to any malign foreign influence that undermines the integrity of our political processes.”
Rafiekian’s defense team said their client was “disappointed” but that they “look forward to ... clearing Mr. Rafiekian of these charges.”
Flynn himself was not charged in the case, spun out of Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel probe. Trump’s onetime national security adviser agreed to cooperate as part of a guilty plea in D.C. federal court to lying about his contacts with Russians. But as Rafiekian’s trial neared, Flynn refused to admit he intentionally lied about the Turkish project, saying he had simply not read documents he signed. Prosecutors chose not to call him as a witness.
“He got a pass,” defense attorney Mark MacDougall said.
“Where is Michael Flynn?” MacDougall later asked in his closing argument, referencing “mysterious” classified evidence that the government has indicated shows Alptekin cultivated a relationship with Flynn that did not involve Rafiekian.
In his closing, Gillis argued that Flynn’s behavior did not absolve Rafiekian.
“Why are we talking about Flynn?” he asked.
But Flynn’s name was invoked repeatedly in court. When the defense pointed out that Turkey had openly hired another firm to advocate against Gulen, Gillis said it was a bigger coup to have “Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn. . . pretend [he] had this opinion. ”
Lacking concrete proof of Turkish involvement, prosecutors relied on convergent falsehoods told by Flynn, Rafiekian and Alptekin as well as the odd evolution of the project.
In the space of a few hours in August, Alptekin went from telling Rafiekian he had a “green light” from top Turkish officials to engage the Flynn Intel Group for an anti-Gulen campaign to claiming he was paying $600,000 himself to encourage investment in Turkey. But the focus remained on Gulen, and the plans for the project did not change.
MacDougall argued unsuccessfully that Alptekin was “making an investment” to improve his own standing with the Turkish government. Gillis called that “a cover story . . . a fig leaf.”
Rafiekian told lawyers for FIG that a September meeting with Turkish ministers in New York City had nothing to do with the project, but in emails he said the opposite. He variously described payments back to Alptekin as “refunds” for work unperformed or fees for an “outside adviser.”
FIG told the Justice Department that Flynn wrote the op-ed on his own initiative.
Evidence showed it was drafted by Rafiekian and shared with Alptekin, who had first raised the idea as coming from someone in the Turkish government. Rafiekian sent Alptekin his first draft just after a meeting with the FIG team at which the businessman dismissed their work; one witness recalled him asking the room angrily, “What am I going to tell Ankara?”
The op-ed, Gillis told jurors, was “something to show Ankara.”
Flynn’s op-ed prompted a flurry of reporting on his relationship with Alptekin and the Turkish government, followed by a letter from the Justice Department asking for details about the op-ed and suggesting Flynn might need to register as a foreign agent.
Emails show Flynn and his colleagues vociferously denied that they were foreign agents or even lobbyists as they drafted talking points for Trump campaign allies.
“We are not linked to any lobbyists,” Flynn emailed Rafiekian.
FIG likewise told the Justice Department in a March 2017 filing under the Foreign Agent Registration Act that while the project “could be construed to have principally benefitted the Republic of Turkey,” the client was Alptekin’s company.
MacDougall argued that the FARA filing, “the heart and soul of this case,” was accurate: “It’s all there.”
Gillis countered that even if that were true, the conspiracy to lobby covertly for Turkey occurred well before the filing was made.
“This isn’t some regulatory violation, this isn’t some small deal,” he said. “This is about the Turkish government trying to influence our political system.”
It is not clear how the government’s decision not to call Flynn as a witness or Rafiekian’s conviction will impact Flynn’s sentencing.
As for why Flynn did not testify, Gillis told jurors the defense could have called him as well.
“They apparently didn’t think he would be of any use to you,” he said. “Nor did we.”