WASHINGTON (AP) — A business partner of former national security adviser Michael Flynn took part in sensitive hiring and policy discussions involving U.S. intelligence as a member of President Donald Trump's transition team, but failed to inform Trump's team that he had conducted political work on behalf of a foreign client of Flynn and might have to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent.
Internal records for Flynn's partner, Bijan Kian, indicate he had not disclosed his work on behalf of a Turkish businessman last year with the Flynn Intel Group or provided any warning that he planned to file as a foreign agent, a current Trump transition official told The Associated Press. Kian, a little-known figure active on the presidential transition team, is emerging as a key player in the political controversy involving Flynn, Trump's fired national security adviser.
"He did not indicate that to us in his transition documents. We would have no reason to know," said the transition official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Kian's role during the post-election period. Almost two months after the transition period, both Kian and Flynn filed in March as foreign agents with the Justice Department, acknowledging their political work for Turkish-run Inovo BV could have principally benefited the government of Turkey.
For Kian, who led most of Flynn Intel Group's research and lobbying for a Turkish businessman, the Trump transition role offered influence in the selection of intelligence agency candidates and access to internal discussions of U.S. national security policy. But Kian's participation in the transition — following his management of work that Flynn Intel acknowledged may have benefited Turkey's government — reinforces concerns about the adequacy of the administration's vetting process.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is co-sponsoring a bill to toughen regulation of Americans performing political work for foreign interests, said Tuesday it was "very troubling that an unregistered foreign agent was playing a key role in the Trump administration's transition." She added that "similar to General Flynn, someone working on behalf of foreign governments should never be put in a position where they're making important decisions within our government."
An Iranian-American businessman whose full name is Bijan Rafiekian, Kian did not respond to repeated attempts over two months by the AP to contact him by phone, email and visits to properties listed for him in public records.
Kian described his transition role on his LinkedIn profile as "deputy lead" assigned to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Kian said he provided "policy input, strategic guidance and operational counsel to prepare" candidates for the director of national intelligence, the CIA and other top officials.
Two former transition officials who met with Kian during that period said that Kian was clearly close with Flynn and served as the retired general's sounding board. One of the officials said Kian helped scrutinize then-Rep. Mike Pompeo before he was named Trump's CIA director. The second official said Kian was involved in transition discussions for the National Security Council and the director of national intelligence. That official added that Kian did not expect to get an administration post. Both transition officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the transition's work.
Like Kian, Flynn also worked on the transition while he was under Justice Department scrutiny for the Turkish work. But, as the AP previously reported , Flynn did inform the Trump transition about his Turkish work through his attorneys, who notified the transition he might have to register as a foreign agent. After Flynn joined the administration, his attorneys followed up with the White House counsel's office, disclosing that Flynn would indeed be registering with the government as a foreign agent.
As Flynn's little-known business partner, Kian played a key role last year in supervising much of Flynn Intel Group's foreign work while the former U.S. lieutenant general campaigned for Trump. The research and lobbying they conducted for the Turkish firm has boomeranged on Flynn, now the target of a federal criminal investigation and congressional inquiries.
Flynn's mishandling of his dealings with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. led to his firing in February by Trump from his post as national security adviser and is now a prime focus of special counsel Robert Mueller's wide-ranging investigation into Russian contacts with the Trump campaign. But the inquiries spawned by Flynn Intel's Turkish work pose added legal complications for both Flynn and his associates. Federal investigators are concentrating on possible criminal violations and a House oversight committee inquiry is examining Flynn's records to determine whether he lied to federal officials about his foreign contacts and payments.
It is not clear whether Kian has been drawn into the expanding criminal probe, but he was deeply involved in Flynn Intel Group's creation, financing and operations, according to the Turkish businessman, people familiar with Flynn's company and records submitted to the Justice Department.
Kian connected Flynn with his Turkish client, helped to negotiate their $600,000 contract and oversaw a documentary and an op-ed aimed at an opponent of Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the client and several others who requested anonymity because of the ongoing criminal investigation. The client, Ekim Alptekin, also confirmed to the AP that Kian worked for one of his Turkish companies at the same time he was working for Flynn Intel.
"Content-wise, it was Bijan handling the day-to-day details," Alptekin said during a recent interview in Washington.
Alptekin told the AP he has not been contacted by federal authorities but has consulted with his U.S.-based legal team. "I'm very confident I engaged in a legal contract and was fully transparent from the beginning about what it entailed and what I was doing," he said.
Flynn's attorney, Robert Kelner, did not respond to detailed questions from the AP.
Kian's interests repeatedly intersected with Flynn's business ventures and political activities after Flynn, a former U.S. Army lieutenant general, left the government in 2014. Kian, a former director of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, shared Flynn's strong public opposition to Iran's theocratic government and a common interest in the development of secure communications systems.
Until Trump's election, Flynn served with Kian on the board of GreenZone Systems Inc., a technology firm Kian headed until April. Flynn and Kian co-authored a 2015 op-ed about ISIS militants, and attended galas put on by the Nowruz Commission, a nonprofit run by Kian and his wife promoting the Iranian Nowruz holiday. Alptekin was named a board director of that group in 2011.
For the three months leading up to the election, Kian was Flynn Intel's linchpin, lobbying and managing contractors in the Turkish work. Alptekin said Kian was the intermediary who brought Flynn's firm together last summer with Alptekin's Dutch-based company, Inovo BV. Kian was also the "main one" representing Flynn Intel in contract talks with him last fall, Alptekin said, adding Flynn "wasn't involved at all" in the talks, though he signed the contract.
Inovo ended up paying Flynn Intel $530,000 for research and lobbying aimed at persuading authorities to file criminal charges against Fethullah Gulen, a political foe of Erdogan. Flynn Intel disclosed its contract and other details of its Turkish work last March to the Justice Department, which regulates lobbying and other political activities for foreign interests in the U.S. Flynn and Kian were the only individuals who personally registered as foreign agents for Inovo.
Kian and Alptekin had an existing business relationship when Flynn Intel began its foreign work. Alptekin confirmed Kian had been vice chairman of his Istanbul-based aviation company, EA Havacilik, since November 2011. Alptekin said he and Kian regularly strategized to build an aviation customer base.
Alptekin has denied that any of Inovo's work was done at the direction of Turkey's government, but he is a member of a foreign trade board managed by the country's economic ministry.
Alptekin said he first met Kian during Kian's stint on the Export-Import bank board for the Bush and Obama administrations between 2006 and 2011. Kian promoted U.S. business interests abroad for the bank, meeting officials in Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other nations, according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.
In his supervisory role for Flynn Intel, Kian was not always explicit about his ties to the firm, said several people who worked with him.
Kian led a lobbying meeting last October with a representative of the House Homeland Security committee on behalf of GreenZone's secure communications products. But, as the AP previously reported , the session veered into a lobbying pitch for Flynn Intel, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the meeting. Kian and others involved pressed for congressional hearings to investigate Gulen but the request went nowhere, the official said. Kian never identified who he was working for, the official said.
Kian also recruited a freelance editor, Hank Cox, to fine-tune an opinion article in early November. The op-ed, praising Turkey's government as America's "strongest ally" against terrorism and pressing for Gulen's extradition, listed no author, Cox said. After he edited the article, Cox said, he sent it back, listing Kian as the writer.
"I assumed since Bijan was the one who hired me, that he had written it," said Cox.
Days later, Cox was baffled when he learned the op-ed had appeared under Flynn's name.
"I was only vaguely aware of General Flynn at the time but I had no idea I was working for him or his company," Cox said.
Flynn's firm told the Justice Department that Flynn, Kian and Cox drafted the op-ed based on the firm's research for Inovo. The firm said neither Inovo BV nor the Turkish government wrote or directed the op-ed, but Flynn Intel acknowledged it shared a draft with Inovo in advance of publication.
Flynn's op-ed, published in The Hill newspaper on Election Day, drew scrutiny from the Justice Department's foreign agent unit. Pressure from those officials forced Flynn and Kian to file as foreign agents and led in part to the federal investigation now targeting Flynn.
Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.
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