ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Two business associates of Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, were charged Monday with illegally lobbying for Turkey as part of a campaign to pressure the United States to expel a Turkish cleric.
Bijan Kian and Ekim Alptekin are accused in an indictment of conspiring to "covertly and unlawfully" influence U.S. public opinion and politicians, all while concealing that the Turkish government was directing their work. The campaign came during the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign while Flynn was a top surrogate for Trump's campaign.
The case sheds further light on how Flynn and those around him worked to benefit a foreign country in the months before he became one of America's top national security officials. The goal of the work was to get the United States to expel Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen from the country.
Gulen, who holds a U.S. green card and lives in Pennsylvania, is a rival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has accused the cleric of directing a failed coup and who wanted the U.S. to extradite him back to Turkey. Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup.
Though Flynn and his company feature prominently in the latest indictment, he is not charged with any new crimes. A retired three-star U.S. Army general, Flynn is to be sentenced Tuesday in a separate case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying about his Russian contacts.
As part of his cooperation in that probe, he has provided prosecutors with voluminous records from his business, Flynn Intel Group, which carried out the lobbying work. Flynn and Kian were co-founders of the firm.
On Monday, Kian, a former Trump transition official whose full name is Bijan Rafiekian, made a brief appearance in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. He has an arraignment scheduled for Tuesday. His lawyer, Robert Trout, declined to comment.
Alptekin, a dual Turkish-Dutch citizen living in Istanbul whose full name is Kamil Ekim Alpetekin, remains at large. He has previously denied any wrongdoing and said he directed the lobbying on his own.
"Ekim maintains that the government of Turkey was not a participant in any of the work that he did with the Flynn Intel Group. He has not changed his story, and he does not plan to," said Molly Toomey, a spokeswoman for Alptekin.
Both men are charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. Alptekin is also charged with lying during an interview with the FBI.
The indictment brought by federal prosecutors in Virginia accuses the two men of using Alptekin's company as a cutout to disguise the Turkish government's involvement. Prosecutors say that Turkish officials approved the budget for the $600,000 lobbying contract and received regular progress reports.
The indictment does not say Turkey's government directly funded the effort, but it raises questions about an unusual payment arrangement revealed last year.
According to the indictment, Alptekin paid Flynn's firm through wire transfers from a Turkish bank account in his name. But prosecutors say he also received portions of the money as "kickbacks" arranged by Kian. Flynn's company was ultimately paid $530,000. Alptekin has said the payments were refunds for unfulfilled work.
The indictment also provides the backstory behind a Nov. 8, 2016, op-ed Flynn published in The Hill newspaper titled "Our Ally Turkey Is in Crisis and Needs Our Support," which compares Gulen to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. The indictment notes that Flynn's column uses identical or very similar language to that prepared by Kian in a draft op-ed.
"We all remember another quiet, bearded elder cleric who sat under an apple tree ... in the suburbs of Paris in 1978," Flynn wrote in the op-ed, mimicking language provided to him by Kian. "He claimed to be a man of God who wanted to be a dictator."
Several days before the column was published, Kian crowed to Alptekin in an email about the advantageous timing of the pending op-ed piece coinciding with Election Day. "The arrow has left the bow!"
Alptekin, who had complained a week earlier that the Flynn Group had not done enough work to honor the contract, responded that Kian's op-ed was "right on target."
But by the end of November that year, the op-ed caught the Justice Department's attention , and that scrutiny ultimately led to Monday's indictment.