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Trial for Michael Flynn's ex-lobbying partner starts with a focus on 2016 meeting, op-ed

Updated 7:47 PM ET, Mon July 15, 2019

(CNN) - Prosecutors and defense attorneys spent the first day of the trial for retired Gen. Michael Flynn's ex-lobbying partner focused on a September 2016 meeting Flynn and others had with Turkish officials and an opinion piece Flynn published online on election day 2016.

Flynn's admitted crime of lying to federal authorities has hovered over the trial. It's likely Flynn's business efforts in 2016 -- at the same time he was working for Donald Trump's presidential campaign -- will become central to proceedings in a Virginia federal courtroom over the next week.

The case, a foreign lobbying trial for Flynn's ex-partner Bijan Kian, is also a major early test for a new Justice Department initiative to crack down on foreign lobbying crimes.

Kian, an Iranian-American who co-founded the Flynn Intel Group with Flynn, is contesting two criminal charges. Prosecutors say Kian, through the Flynn Intel Group, secretly worked for Turkey in 2016 and avoided disclosing the work to the Justice Department. The work allegedly was intended to smear a Turkish imam and political leader living in Pennsylvania who the Turkish government blamed for a 2016 uprising and whom the foreign power wanted to extradite.

Prosecutors on Monday laid out how they'll show the jury emails about a promised $600,000 in payments through an intermediary company for the Turkish government, and will discuss a Monopoly-like game board that Flynn Intel Group created about the self-exiled Turk, Fethullah Gulen. Prosecutors also described the September 2016 meeting between Flynn, Kian, Turkish ministers and others, and Flynn's Nov. 8, 2016, op-ed in The Hill newspaper about the US-Turkish relationship and Gulen.

Defense lawyers for Kian pointed out that Turkey had "nothing to do" in advance of Kian drafting the op-ed and Flynn getting it published, and that at the meeting, the lobbyists and Turkish officials hadn't discussed a contract.

It's not yet known if Flynn will be called to testify as a witness for Kian. The prosecutors, despite Flynn's agreement to cooperate with them as a way to score points for his sentencing, will not be using him to build their case after they said last week he may be changing his story.

At the very least, Flynn's former criminal defense and lobbying attorney Robert Kelner -- of the large Washington law firm Covington & Burling -- is scheduled to testify Tuesday, prosecutors said in court.

Kian's attorney Robert Trout explained to the jury on Monday how they will hear evidence about Covington's work and decision-making for the Flynn Intel Group, after Flynn's appointment as Trump's national security adviser drew public attention following the 2016 election.

"To everyone's surprise, Michael Flynn went from being a warm-up act for the Trump campaign to being national security adviser," prompting the Justice Department to look into Flynn's lobbying disclosures, Trout told the jury. Kian hadn't even signed the lobbying forms -- Flynn did, Trout said.

Flynn had his own deal to work for Turkey, Trout added, citing a statement prosecutors revealed late last week. It's still unclear the resonance of that revelation, but that too may come out at trial.

Potential jurors were asked extensively about their knowledge of Flynn and the case before the jury was chosen from a pool of about 100 Northern Virginians on Monday afternoon. Several potential jurors who were not selected had told the judge before the trial started they had "negative" opinions about the President's former national security adviser, or had ties to the military.

Flynn's new defense attorneys closely watched the proceedings on Monday, and a former prosecutor from Robert Mueller's Office of Special Counsel who worked on Flynn's plea and now handles federal foreign lobbying prosecutions attended the trial's opening.


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