A jury on Tuesday convicted a one-time business partner of former national security adviser Michael Flynn on charges he illegally acted as a Turkish agent when he and Flynn undertook a project to discredit an exiled cleric wanted by Turkey’s government.
Bijan Kian, 67, was convicted on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent, according to Josh Stueve, a spokesman for the US attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 18.
The convictions came despite comments by the judge made outside the jury’s presence that the government’s evidence was weak.
The jury concluded that Kian, whose full name is Bijan Rafiekian, worked to conceal Turkey’s involvement in the contract, which targeted Fethullah Gulen. The cleric is blamed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a failed coup there in 2016.
“Today’s verdict should stand as a deterrent to any malign foreign influence that undermines the integrity of our political processes,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a news release.
Prosecutors made their case without testimony from Flynn, who had initially been expected to be the government’s star witness.
Under federal law, individuals working on behalf of foreign governments are required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act to provide a measure of transparency.
Prosecutors say Flynn and Kian received hundreds of thousands of dollars through their joint business venture, the Flynn Intel Group, to discredit Gulen. Those efforts included a November 2016 op-ed piece in The Hill newspaper in which Flynn compared Gulen to Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Prosecutors argued that Turkey’s involvement in the project was deliberately hidden when Flynn Intel Group received payment through a Dutch company run by a prominent Turkish businessman.
Defense lawyers, though, said the contract with the business was legitimate. They also presented testimony that Kian initially planned to register under FARA but was told he did not have to after consulting a lawyer. They argued it would be wrong to convict Kian of a crime when he received legal advice recommending the opposite.
The case against Kian spun off from special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians.
Flynn was a major foreign policy adviser to Trump during the campaign, and served briefly as his national security adviser. He has pleaded guilty to making false statements in a separate case, and admitted in that case that he lied about Turkey’s involvement in the contract.
Flynn’s own sentencing was put on hold in part to gauge his level of cooperation with prosecutors in the Kian case. Flynn’s lawyers have complained that prosecutors had no good reason to reverse course on putting Flynn on the stand and have worried that the decision to label Flynn as an unindicted coconspirator will hurt him at his own sentencing.
The Turkish government has also criticized the government’s case. In a statement to The Associated Press, Turkey’s presidential spokesman, Fahrettin Altun, said that “(t)he idea that we would conspire against the United States is preposterous.”