(Bloomberg) -- Bijan Kian was convicted by a federal jury of secretly acting as an agent of the Turkish government while working with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, his onetime business partner.
The case against Kian, 67, who co-founded Flynn Intelligence Group, was one of several to grow out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That probe cast a light on foreign agents operating in the U.S. without registering, an offense that had been prosecuted rarely.
Kian faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, although sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum. He’s scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 18.
The verdict on Tuesday came a day before Mueller is scheduled to testify to Congress for the first time since he completed his investigation. Mueller had secured a guilty plea from Flynn for lying to investigators and referred the Kian case to federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Virginia. Jurors there deliberated for less than a day before handing down their two-count conviction.
Kian, whose formal name is Bijan Rafiekian, helped the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan retaliate against a political opponent and then concealed the government’s involvement, the U.S. said. Prosecutors said that Kian and a Turkish co-defendant who never appeared in court, Kamil Ekim Alptekin, helped the Erdogan government blame Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam based in the U.S., for a failed coup attempt against the president in 2016.
In late summer 2016, while Flynn was working as the top national security adviser to the campaign of Donald Trump, Flynn and Kian contracted with Turkey to influence public opinion and U.S. government officials against Gulen. The 90-day effort was known as “The Truth Campaign” and involved a media blitz in the U.S. to discredit Gulen, as well as meetings with U.S. government officials who might help push for his extradition.
“It was always about getting dirt on Gulen and getting him extradited and making sure that Erdogan was viewed favorably by the United States government and the people of the United States,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Gillis said in closing arguments on Monday. He added: “They tried to subvert the American process so that Erdogan could get his hands on Gulen.”
Although Flynn wasn’t called as a witness at trial, his role as a key adviser to President Trump and his deep involvement with Kian in his dealings with the Turkish government made him a key figure in the case.
Jurors had to decide whether Kian conspired to act as an agent of the Turkish government without notifying the U.S. Justice Department. Prosecutors said that Kian disguised the true nature of the project meant to undermine Gulen.
Defense lawyers told jurors that prosecutors failed to prove that any Turkish official gave direction to Kian -- a key element required for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. They also said that he followed the advice of lawyers in deciding how to register.
“This case is about a man, Bijan Rafiekian, who went to lawyers and asked them for help, asked them to help comply with the law,” defense lawyer Mark MacDougall said in his summation. “He did as they counseled him.”
After Flynn agreed in 2017 to cooperate in the case against Kian, prosecutors’ trial strategy was built around using him as their star witness. In December, they told a judge that Flynn had been so helpful that they would agree to no prison time for his guilty plea for lying to investigators.
But last month, Flynn changed course, hiring a new lawyer who has been harshly critical of the Mueller inquiry and backing away from statements he’d made during his debriefings with investigators. Prosecutors then dropped him as a witness, told the judge that their view of his role had changed from cooperator to co-conspirator and said they would reassess their agreement with Flynn.
Without Flynn’s testimony, the Kian trial centered on emails and documents, as well as testimony from Flynn’s former lawyer. Flynn’s company was hired in 2016 by a Dutch-registered company, Innovo BV, for $600,000, ostensibly to offer business intelligence for an Israeli company considering a pipeline deal in the Mideast.
But prosecutors said that was a front for the Turkish government, which wanted the company owned by Flynn -- then a Trump campaign aide -- to lobby for Gulen’s extradition.
Kian was convicted of conspiracy and violating FARA.
Alptekin, a businessman, said in a tweet after the verdict: “An innocent man was convicted today and judicial overreach on a massive scale was rewarded. I feel terrible for Bijan Kian and for Gen. Flynn. They did nothing wrong. I continue to believe that the truth will come out, eventually.”
(Updates with Kian’s age in second paragraph.)
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