Mueller’s team asks White House for Flynn records
WASHINGTON — Investigators working for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, recently asked the White House for documents related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn and have questioned witnesses about whether he was secretly paid by the Turkish government during the final months of the presidential campaign, according to people close to the investigation.
Although not a formal subpoena, the document request is the first known instance of Mueller’s team asking the
White House to hand over records.
In interviews with potential witnesses in recent weeks, prosecutors and FBI agents have spent hours poring over the details of Flynn’s business dealings with a Turkish-American businessman who worked last year with Flynn and his now-defunct consulting business, the Flynn Intel Group.
The company was paid $530,000 to run a campaign to discredit an opponent of the Turkish government who has been accused of orchestrating last year’s failed coup in the country.
Investigators want to know whether the Turkish government was behind those payments — and if the Flynn Intel Group gave kickbacks to the businessman, Ekim Alptekin, for helping conceal the source of the money.
The line of questioning shows that Mueller’s inquiry has expanded into a fullfledged examination of Flynn’s financial dealings, beyond the question of whether he failed to register as a foreign agent or lied about his conversations and business arrangements with Russian officials.
Flynn was national security adviser for 24 days, but his legal troubles lie at the center of a political storm that has engulfed President Donald Trump’s administration. For months, prosecutors have used multiple grand juries to issue subpoenas for documents related to Flynn.
Trump has said publicly that Mueller should confine
his investigation to the narrow issue of Russia’s attempts to disrupt last year’s presidential campaign, not conduct an expansive inquiry into the finances of Trump or his associates.
Flynn declined to comment. Ty Cobb, special counsel to Trump, said, “We’ve said before we’re collaborating with the special counsel on an ongoing basis.”
“It’s full cooperation mode as far as we are concerned,” he said.
After Flynn’s dismissal, Trump tried to get James Comey, the FBI director, to drop the investigation, Comey has said.
Mueller is investigating whether Trump committed obstruction of justice in pressing for an end to the Flynn inquiry. The president fired Comey on May 9.
Investigators are examining the flow of money into and out of the Flynn Intel Group — a consulting firm Flynn founded after being forced out as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency — according to several potential witnesses who have been interviewed by prosecutors and FBI agents.
Taking money from Turkey or any foreign government is not illegal. But failing to register as a foreign agent is a felony, and trying to hide the source of the money by routing it through a private company or some other entity, and then paying kickbacks to the middleman, could lead to numerous criminal charges, including fraud.
Prosecutors also have asked during interviews about Flynn’s speaking engagements for Russian companies, for which he was paid more than $65,000 in 2015, and about his company’s clients — including work it may have done with the Japanese government.
They also have asked about the White Canvas Group, a data-mining company that was reportedly paid $200,000 by the Trump campaign for unspecified services. The Flynn Intel Group shared office space with the White Canvas Group, which was founded by a former special operations officer who was a friend of Flynn’s.
VERSION NO. 3 FOR FORMS
Flynn has now had to file three versions of his financial-disclosure forms.
His first version did not disclose payments from Russia-linked companies. He added those payments to an amended version of the forms he submitted in March. This week he filed a new version, adding that he briefly had a contract with SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining firm that worked with the Trump campaign.
Democratic lawmakers and Trump critics have seized on Cambridge Analytica’s role as they’ve pushed congressional investigators to scrutinize the Trump campaign’s data operation as part of the investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But the Trump campaign has played down the firm’s involvement, with officials saying they used the company only for a short time for television advertising and paid some of the firm’s data employees.
The new forms list at least $1.8 million in income, up from the roughly $1.4 million Flynn previously had reported. It is unclear how much of that money was related to work Flynn did on Turkey matters.
Flynn’s campaign to discredit the opponent of the Turkish government, Fethullah Gulen, began Aug. 9 last
year when his firm signed a $600,000 deal with Inovo BV, a Dutch company owned by Alptekin, a Turkish-American businessman.
Gulen, a reclusive Muslim cleric, lives in rural Pennsylvania.
The contract with Alptekin was brought in by Bijan Kian, an Iranian-American businessman who was one Flynn’s business partners. Kian, who served until 2011 as a director of the Export-Import Bank, a U.S. federal agency, is also under scrutiny, according to witnesses questioned by Mueller’s investigators. A lawyer for Kian declined to comment.
Inovo ultimately paid the Flynn Intel Group only $530,000 and received little more than slapdash research and an attempt to make an anti-Gulen video, which was never completed. The entire enterprise may have gone unnoticed if Flynn had not written an opinion piece advocating improved relations between Turkey and the United States and calling Gulen “a shady Islamic mullah.”
The opinion piece appeared on Election Day. Soon after, The Daily Caller revealed that the Flynn Intel Group had a contract with Inovo, prompting the Justice Department to look into Flynn’s relationship with Alptekin.
Authorities quickly determined that Flynn had not registered as a foreign agent, as required by law. In March, he retroactively registered with the Justice Department.
Mueller’s investigators have asked repeatedly about two payments of $40,000 each that the Flynn Intel Group made to Inovo, said witnesses who have been interviewed in the case.
The investigators have indicated that they suspect that the payments were kickbacks and, in one interview, pointed to the suspicious timing of the transfers. The first payment to Inovo was made Sept. 13, four days after the Dutch company made its first payout under the contract, sending $200,000 to the Flynn Intel Group.
On Oct. 11, Inovo paid the Flynn Intel Group an additional $185,000. Then, six days later, Flynn Intel Group sent $40,000 to Inovo.
Alptekin said both payments were refunds for work that the Flynn Intel Group had not completed.
“Ekim maintains that all payments and refunds were for unfulfilled work and that they were legal, ethical and above board,” said Molly Toomey, a spokesman for Alptekin. She described the reimbursements as “a business decision.”
Another focus for investigators is the changing explanation Alptekin has offered for why he hired Flynn. In March, he told a reporter that Flynn had been hired “to produce geopolitical analysis on Turkey and the region” for an Israeli energy company. But in an interview with The New York Times in June, he said he wanted a credible U.S. firm to help discredit Gulen, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has blamed for the coup attempt.
Alptekin scoffed at the suggestion that he was a front for the Turkish government. Inovo, he noted, was registered in the Netherlands, where it is difficult to mask the ownership of a company. A clear paper trail linked the payments between his company and the Flynn Intel Group, he said.
“If we were trying to hide,” he said, “you’d think we’d be good at it.”
Information for this article was contributed by Michael S. Schmidt and Adam Goldman of The New York Times and by Chad Day and Stephen Braun of The Associated Press.