Federal prosecutors charged Michael Flynn’s former business partner with illegally lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government and attempts to have a dissident cleric extradited from the United States.
In an indictment filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, the Justice Department said businessman Bijan Kian engaged in a conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and make false statements on lobbying registration forms.
Kian is expected to appear in an Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom later this week. His co-defendant, Kamil Ekim Alptekin, is reportedly still in Turkey.
The indictment alleges that Kian and Alptekin, close allies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sought out Flynn’s firm to “discredit and delegitimize” Fethullah Gulen, the cleric, and “secure his extradition” back to Turkey on behalf of the government in Ankara.
Gulen, an opponent of Erdogan, lives in a compound in Pennsylvania. Erdogan claims he orchestrated a coup attempt, while officials in Washington in the past have said there is not enough evidence to support an extradition request.
A draft “playbook” for the anti-Gulen project, initially called “Truth Campaign” and later “Operation Confidence,” sought to portray him as a threat similar to former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Khomeini, Kian allegedly wrote in an email, Gulen appeared to be a harmless religious figure “sitting under an apple tree” in exile but would grow to lead an Islamic revolution.
Alptekin allegedly discussed the apple tree analogy with two unnamed Turkish ministers in a September 2016 meeting in New York, according to the indictment. Prosecutors claim Kian later emailed Flynn, referred to as “Person A” in the indictment, to tell him the “feedback” Alptekin received from the New York meeting “was positive.”
Kian's talking point about Gulen as the tree from which Islamic revolution would grow also appeared in an op-ed written by Flynn for The Hill after the 2016 election. The piece labeled Gulen an Islamic radical and called for the U.S. to deny him “safe haven.”
Flynn and Bijan allegedly kept Alptekin informed about the progress of their lobbying work in weekly conference calls. Alptekin, the indictment claimed, briefed senior Turkish officials about the effort and provided feedback to Kian and Flynn about how their work was received in Ankara.
Prosecutors say Alptekin and Bijan lied to Flynn's attorneys as they gathered information for a belated lobbying registration filing in an effort to conceal the Turkish government's involvement in their work.
The indictment comes as Flynn is about to be sentenced for his own lies to federal investigators.
In a plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, Flynn admitted that his lobbying registration forms failed to disclose the Turkish government was behind the lobbying work he performed for Kian.
As part of that work, Flynn also crafted a fake “Gulenopoly” game, calling attention to Gulen’s alleged misdeeds in the style of a Monopoly game.
The Trump administration has reportedly considered booting the exiled cleric from the U.S. In November, NBC News reported that the White House had asked the Justice Department to consider options on how to expel Gulen. On Sunday, Turkey’s foreign minister said in a speech that President Trump had told Turkish President Erdogan at the G20 meeting that he was “working on extraditing” Gulen.