The release of a well-connected Turkish-Iranian businessman from federal prison in New York earlier this month could signal a new phase in the ongoing investigation into former White House national security advisor Michael Flynn.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has expressed interest in a December 2016 meeting between Flynn and representatives of the Turkish government, in which Flynn was reportedly offered $15 million to deliver a political rival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from the United States to Turkey. Flynn denies the allegations and his attorney has called them "outrageous."
According to NBC News, citing three sources, the probe is also investigating whether Flynn discussed ways to free Reza Zarrab, a wealthy gold trader with dual Iranian and Turkish citizenship and personal ties to Erdogan. Zarrab was indicted in 2015 in federal court for allegedly circumventing U.S. sanctions on the Iranian regime by facilitating millions of dollars worth of unlawful transactions. He was set to go on trial in New York later this month.
The Daily Beast reported Thursday that Zarrab was removed from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal facility in New York City, though a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office said Zarrab remained in federal custody.
The Bureau of Prisons inmate locator shows that Zarrab was released Nov. 8, three days after NBC News reported that the special counsel had enough evidence to bring charges against Flynn.
A spokesperson for the special counsel declined to comment.
But a former U.S. attorney told The Daily Beast that inmates in pretrial detention can sometimes be moved when they are cooperating with the government, a possible explanation for Zarrab's removal from prison.
If Zarrab has any information about the deal that was reportedly floated for his release, this could be a damaging development for Flynn. An attorney for Flynn did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.
Zarrab has retained a team of celebrity attorneys to fight his case, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Ben Brafman, a criminal defense attorney who has represented pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli and disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
In recent weeks, however, The New York Times has reported certain signs indicating that Zarrab might have pleaded guilty, including a halt to new court filings. Reached by CNBC, Brafman declined to comment on Zarrab's case.
Flynn was one of the first Trump staffers to come under investigation for alleged ties to foreign powers, and reportedly told the Trump campaign that he was under investigation before he was appointed national security advisor.
Flynn resigned from his White House role Feb. 13 after reports surfaced that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about a conversation he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.