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A former business partner of President Donald Trump's first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and another man have been indicted on conspiracy charges related to efforts to smear and win the extradition of an exiled Turkish cleric at the behest of the government of Turkey.
That conspiracy allegedly included a scathing op-ed article that Flynn wrote about the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, which was published on Election Day 2016.
Bijan Kian, 66, and Kamil Alptekin were charged in U.S. District Court in Eastern Virginia with acting as unregistered agents of the Turkish government, according to court documents made public Monday.
Alptekin, a 41-year-old Turkish national who currently is in Turkey, also was charged with four counts of making false statements to the FBI, according to the indictment, issued by a grand jury last Wednesday.
Kian, an Iranian-American who is a resident of San Juan Capistrano, California, appeared Monday morning in court in Alexandria, Virginia, and was released without bail. Kian served on Trump's transition team, in the division related to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
From 2006 through 2011 he was a board member of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
The indictment offers new details about Flynn's work advancing the interests of the Turkish government, even as he remained one of the most outspoken and politically polarizing boosters of Trump's presidential campaign.
The two men are accused by federal authorities of attempting to "covertly and unlawfully" influence U.S. politics and public opinion in favor of extraditing Gulen, who was blamed by Turkey's president, Recep Erdogan, for an attempted coup in 2016. Cabinet-level officials in Turkey approved the budget for the project, according to prosecutors.
"The defendants sought to discredit and delegitimize the Turkish citizen in the eyes of politicians," the court filing said.
Flynn's firm, which had been hired by Alptekin's Netherlands-based company, was part of that alleged effort.
Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied that he was behind the efforts to overthrow the Turkish government. On Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed that the U.S. was "working on" extraditing Gulen to Turkey, The New York Times reported. Cavusoglu said that Trump made the comment to Erdogan during the recent G-20 summit in Argentina.
The release of the indictment comes a day before Flynn, a 60-year-old retired lieutenant general, is due to be sentenced in federal court in Washington for making false statements to FBI agents.
Flynn has been cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigations.
A spokesman for the special counsel's office referred CNBC's questions to federal prosecutors in Virginia.
Flynn last year pleaded guilty to lying about his conversations in late 2016 with the then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
But Mueller's team also noted in a sentencing memo earlier this month that Flynn also made false statements to the Justice Department related to work his company did "for the principal benefit of the Republic of Turkey" soon after the 2016 coup attempt.
Flynn and his company were paid $530,000 for their Turkey-related work.
The indictment says that Flynn, identified as "Person A," and Kian founded a company that offered clients services based on Flynn's "national security expertise."
Kian and Alptekin then allegedly secretly conspired to influence American politicians and public opinion about Gulen, when the cleric's extradition was being sought by Turkey. The Justice Department was resisting that request.
According to the indictment, Kian and Alptekin worked at the direction of the government of Turkey. But they tried to conceal that by having Alptekin's firm, rather than the Turkish government, serve as the client of Flynn's company, according to court documents.
In his subsequent op-ed for The Hill, Flynn labeled Gulen a "shady Islamic mullah," and "a radical Islamist" — and compared him to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and to Osama bin Laden.
"We should not provide him safe haven," Flynn wrote of Gulen. "In this crisis, it is imperative that we remember who our real friends are."
The op-ed was published Nov. 8, 2016 — the same day as the presidential election — and was a direct result of the conspiracy, according to the indictment.
On Nov. 4, 2016, Kian emailed Alptekin about the op-ed, saying, "I just left [Person A]. The arrow has left the bow! ... This is a very high profile exposure one day before the election," according to the indictment. Attached to that email was a draft of Flynn's op-ed.
The op-ed contained the same description of Khomeini sitting under an "apple tree" that Kian had made in emails and a draft version of the op-ed, the indictment noted.
After the 2016 election, Alptekin told NBC News that he was not affiliated with the Turkish government, and that his hiring of the Flynn Intel Group had nothing to do with the Turkish government.
Flynn served as Trump's national security advisor for less than a month. He resigned under pressure in February 2017, after lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his contacts with Kislyak.
The indictment says that while Flynn was national security advisor, and for a month or so thereafter, lawyers for Flynn's firm tried to determine if the firm and its employees needed to register as agents of foreign governments based on their work in the effort to discredit Gulen.
Kian and Alptekin "knowingly provided false information to [Flynn's firm's] attorneys in an effort to hide from the attorneys — and ultimately from the [Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Act] unit — the involvement of Turkish government officials in the project," the indictment says.
If convicted, Kian faces a maximum of 15 years in prison, according to a Justice Department press release. Alptekin's charges add up to a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.
Read the full indictment below: