Judge withholds ruling on acquitting Flynn partner

By Josh Gerstein
Bijan Rafiekian is on trial for acting as an unregistered agent for Turkey during his work for Flynn Intel Group, a consulting firm.

A judge on Thursday stopped just short of acquitting Michael Flynn’s former business partner, Bijan Rafiekian, on charges stemming from a Turkey-related lobbying campaign the men worked during the 2016 campaign.

Prosecutors wrapped up their case against Rafiekian Thursday afternoon after three days of testimony before a jury of seven men and five women in federal court in Alexandria, Va.

Defense attorneys argued to U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Trenga that the government had not met its burden to prove the two charges against Rafiekian: acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the U.S. and conspiring to violate that law, as well as submitting false information in a belated foreign-agent registration. Rafiekian worked with Flynn at the Flynn Intel Group, which conducted the Turkey-related efforts at the same time that Flynn was working as a top adviser to the Trump campaign.

While defense lawyers for Rafiekian asked Trenga to dismiss the entire case, they were most focused on the conspiracy charge and capitalizing on a pre-trial ruling the judge made that evidence appeared to be lacking that Rafiekian agreed with others to violate U.S. law.

Trenga expressed the same skepticism during a hearing on the issue, but following a 45-minute recess, he returned to the courtroom to say he was taking the issue under advisement and would allow the trial to proceed.

“There are very substantial issues with respect to the sufficiency of the evidence,” Trenga said. He called the government’s proof “all very circumstantial,” adding: “Most of it’s speculative.”

However, the judge noted that court rules at this stage call for him to assess the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. Then, he announced he was planning to “reserve” on the issue.

That means the case will likely go to the jury. If it acquits Rafiekian on both counts, the judge will never have to resolve the acquittal motion, but he will have to return to it if Rafeikian is convicted.

During arguments to the court, Rafiekian attorney James Tysse said the prosecutors’ case was even more fragile than it appeared just last week, when Trenga expressed doubts about it.

“The evidence is extremely weak, entirely circumstantial and based mainly on hearsay,” Tysse said. “This should end it, Your Honor.”

Tysse acknowledged there were some indications the Turkish businessman who retained the Flynn group, Ekim Alptekin, was in contact with Turkish officials, but the defense attorney said there was no evidence they were directing or controlling the project.

Prosecutor Evan Turgeon said proof of a conspiracy came from the fact that Flynn, Rafiekian and others had “told the same lies” about the goals of the project.

“Two people’s lies only match up when those people have gotten together” and settled on a made-up story, Turgeon said.

Knocking out the conspiracy count would not have dramatically affected the prison time Rafiekian is likely to receive if convicted, but it would have lessened the overall possibility of a conviction by taking off the table the allegations he prompted false statements to be made to the Justice Department.

The most notable witness Thursday was prominent Washington lobbyist Jim Courtovich. He was called by prosecutors as they wrapped up their case to testify about his firm’s work with the Flynn Intel Group. Courtovich and Flynn’s firm had discussed ways to craft a media relations plan to highlight allegations against Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and whom Turkey’s government blames for an unsuccessful coup attempt in July 2016.

Courtovich also testified about what appeared to be an abruptly curtailed effort by Trump campaign lawyer William McGinley to investigate an Election Day op-ed about Gulen published under Flynn’s name by the news outlet The Hill.

Courtovich said McGinley held a conference call to discuss the opinion piece and ask who, if anyone, paid for it. “McGinley wanted to know the origins of the op-ed and if it was related to any program or contract,” the lobbyist recalled.

Rafiekian told McGinley it was not part of the Flynn Intel Group’s Turkey work, but was simply something Flynn was “passionate” about and wanted out by Election Day, Courtovich said.

However, when Rafiekian was asked precisely who was paying for the Turkey work, he was vague or nonresponsive, Courtovich said. “There was not an immediate answer to that,” he said.

Courtovich said he proposed they reach out to Ben Ginsberg, a prominent GOP lawyer whom Courtovich consulted earlier. But that seemed to concern McGinley.

“That’s when McGinley said, ‘I think we have a conflict here. Let’s hang up.’ And that ended the call,” Courtovich said.

Courtovich also described a meeting at Flynn’s consulting firm’s offices in Alexandria in early November 2016, during which the Turkish businessman who inked the $600,000 contract with the Flynn firm, Alptekin, seemed deeply unsatisfied with the Flynn group’s work.

While Flynn’s team and Courtovich had begun work relating to a “60-Minutes style” video about the threat allegedly posed by Gulen, Alptekin wanted actionable evidence of crimes by Gulen that would lead to his extradition by the U.S.

In a huff about the work, Alptekin slid a printed PowerPoint presentation across the table, questioned the value of what he’d paid for, and said, “What am I going to tell Ankara,” Courtovich recalled.

“I almost fell off my chair,” Courtovich testified. “When you sit down with a client and he basically tells you you’ve failed on every single level, you get a little concerned.”

Courtovich said he had a contract worth about $40,000 to promote the video, which was never actually produced. But the veteran lobbyist and PR consultant said the kind of campaign Alptekin envisioned would cost several million dollars.

Courtovich also said the exclusive focus on Gulen at the Nov. 2 meeting was a surprise because he thought the project was being funded by businesses concerned about the investment climate. “I went in there still under the impression [we were] promoting private investment in Turkey, then this cat jumped out of the bag,” Courtovich said.

After completing his testimony, Courtovich made an unusual move for a prosecution witness. With the jury still in the room, he came down from the witness stand and delivered a firm, enthusiastic handshake to Rafiekian as he sat at the defense table, flanked by his attorneys.

Prosecutors allege in the case against Rafiekian that the Dutch company Flynn’s firm originally said was the sponsor of the Turkey-related work, Inovo BV, was essentially acting at the direction of the Turkish government.

Alptekin was also charged in the indictment against Rafiekian, but has never been taken into custody. He’s believed to be in Turkey.