ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Bijan Rafiekian, former partner in the consultancy firm of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has been found guilty on charges of conspiracy and of acting as an unregistered agent of Turkey.
A jury in the federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia concluded that Rafiekian, former vice chair of the now-defunct Flynn Intel Group (FIG), and Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman, conspired to lobby in the United States on behalf of Turkey in 2016 without disclosing it to the U.S. government.
The jury reached its verdict on July 23 after about five hours of deliberations.
Alptekin, who is known to have ties to the Turkish government, paid more than $500,000 to FIG in 2016 to do research and lobbying focused on an Islamic cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania named Fethullah Gulen, who runs a group that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed for an attempted 2016 coup.
On Nov. 8, 2016, Rafiekian had an op-ed published under Flynn’s name in The Hill arguing for the extradition of Gulen.
When FIG retroactively registered under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) in March 2017, it disclosed the op-ed as benefiting Turkey, but said it was unrelated to the lobbying job.
The prosecution argued that the op-ed was part of a conspiracy to lobby in the United States on behalf of Turkey without disclosing it to the U.S. government.
The case seemed to be on the brink of being thrown out on July 18 over insufficient evidence. Judge Anthony Trenga, in the end, allowed the case to continue, but reserved his decision on the matter and set a hearing for Sept. 5, when he could still rule that the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction and acquit Rafiekian.
Rafiekian, a former board member of the U.S. Export–Import Bank, faces up to 15 years in prison. His counsel declined to comment.
Trenga set sentencing for Oct. 18.
Flynn, a former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, wasn’t charged in the case as part of his 2017 plea deal, in which he admitted to lying to the FBI in an unrelated case as well as lying on the FARA forms.
FARA and FISA
Flynn’s lawyer, Sidney Powell, called the Rafiekian case an “egregious abuse of government power.”
A former prosecutor and vocal critic of corruption in the Justice Department, she pointed out that in the past 70-plus years, there were only seven prosecutions for acting as an unregistered foreign agent, all dealing with terrorism or espionage.
She suggested the government has inappropriately stretched the term “agent of a foreign government” as used in Section 951, under which Rafiekian was charged, and also conflated it with the term “agent of a foreign power” as used in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in order to obtain the extremely intrusive FISA spying warrants.
“The [Justice Department’s] National Security Division and the FBI have been collapsing FISA and FARA stuff to the point where there’s no distinction between the two,” she said. “This is a prosecution that’s designed to cover their own abuses of the surveillance system. That’s why it was so important to them.”
It’s been speculated that the FBI took out a FISA warrant on Flynn in order to spy on the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. That hasn’t been confirmed, but Powell said she would “bet money” that the bureau obtained the warrant on her client.
“It’s very scary stuff,” she said. “The jury has no idea what they just did.”
Attorney General William Barr previously said he’ll look into potential spying abuses against people associated with the Trump campaign. The Justice Department’s inspector general is expected to soon release a report addressing the matter.
FIG was started by Flynn in 2015 after he left his post as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, reportedly over disagreements with the Obama administration. The Alptekin contract was its first lobbying job, Powell said.
She said Flynn knew little about the job, participating in some meetings and conference calls during a period when he was busy advising the Trump campaign and working on his book.
Flynn is expected to face a light sentence, including no jail time, as part of his deal, which involved extensive cooperation with the Justice Department on multiple investigations.
Both Flynn’s and Rafiekian’s cases were handled by then-special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his sprawling investigation, which mainly focused on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Flynn was supposed to be one of the prosecutors’ witnesses on the Rafiekian case. But when the Mueller team asked him to testify that he signed the FARA forms knowing that there were intentionally made false statements in them, he refused, saying he only acknowledged the falsities with hindsight and wasn’t aware of them at the time.
The prosecutors then withdrew his testimony. The prosecution didn’t think Flynn’s testimony “would be of any use” to the jurors, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Gillis said during his July 22 closing statement.
Powell said she didn’t expect Rafiekian’s conviction to make any difference in the Flynn case.