Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption. The new ethics pledge he announced Wednesday would prohibit registered lobbyists from working for his transition team or administration.
But Trump’s supposed aversion to lobbyists has not harmed the fortunes of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, one of Trump’s earliest and most visible supporters, now a vice chair of the transition team and a rumored frontrunner for the influential post of national security adviser.
Though Flynn is not a lobbyist himself, his company, Flynn Intel Group, is registered with Congress as a lobbying organization, and has a registered lobbyist on its staff. A Flynn Intel Group client, Kamil Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman with real estate, aerospace, and consulting interests, told The Intercept on Thursday that one of his companies, Inovo BV, paid Flynn’s company “tens of thousands of dollars” for analysis on world affairs. On election day, Flynn published an opinion piece for The Hill urging U.S. support for Turkey’s controversial strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and pushing for the extradition of Erdogan’s political rival, Fethullah Gülen, who now resides in Pennsylvania. “From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden,” Flynn wrote, on November 8.
In a statement, Flynn said that he would sever ties with his own company if he entered Trump’s administration. He did not say whether he would close the business, where his son is listed as chief of staff, or disclose his other clients.
Alptekin said that while he agreed with what Flynn wrote, he did not have any influence over his views. “There is no money in the world that could make Gen. Flynn or anybody else who is being considered for a cabinet post write that article on election day,” he said. “I don’t think a billion dollars would make him do that.”
The ties between Flynn Intel Group and Inovo BV, Alptekin’s company, were previously reported by The Daily Caller and Politico. Robert Kelley, the Flynn Group’s general counsel and the main point of contact with the Inovo account, told Politico that the company’s duties included reporting on “the present situation, the transition between President Obama and President-elect Trump.”
Alptekin said that was “absolutely untrue. We never had a single conversation on that issue.”
He told The Intercept that he hired Flynn Intel Group “three months ago.” He said he knew of Flynn’s relationship with President-elect Trump, but that had no bearing on his decision to become a client. “It was more his reputation for integrity, and as a decorated war hero who knows the region,” he said. “I didn’t work with him directly. I never discussed the [election day] article with him directly. I didn’t sign off on the article.”
While Alptekin says the payments were not for lobbying, Flynn Intel Group is registered as a lobbyist for Inovo BV, a Dutch company controlled by Alptekin.
Flynn Intel Group had not registered as a lobbying entity until September. That month, Kelley, the company’s general counsel, registered as a lobbyist for Inovo BV. (A third filing, from late October, identifies a government relations company called SGR LLC as lobbying Congress on behalf of the Flynn Intel Group.)
Earlier 2016 filings with the Department of Justice from Kelley’s law office identify him as an agent of the National Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi military group trained by the Turkish government and controlled by the former governor of Nineveh province. The filings show that Kelley received a total of $90,000 from the Iraqi group and terminated the relationship in June.
Alptekin, a Turkish citizen who worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional fellow in 2003, confirmed that Inovo BV, his Dutch company, was a current client of Flynn Intel Group. “I don’t know him so well, but I met him a few times,” he said, of Gen. Flynn. “In general, when [Flynn] meets someone from the region, he ends up talking about the danger of radical Islam. He mentioned that radical Islam in Turkey is no different from other radical Islamic leaders in the past, with a different front face, a different back office. He compared Gülen to Ayatollah Khomeini. I remember that of the talking points he discussed with me. But I never said ‘go out and say this and do that.’”
“Mr. Flynn does not work on my contract,” he added. “Mr. Bob Kelley does.”
Neither Flynn nor the Trump transition team responded to requests for comment. Reached by phone on Thursday afternoon, Kelley read a three-sentence statement which he said had been prepared by Flynn. “Our counsel, Bob Kelley, registered pursuant to law for our company to represent the interests of a private company,” the statement read, in part.
It continued: “If I return to government service, my relationship with my company will be severed in accordance with the policy announced by President-elect Trump.”
Kelley declined to say whether the Flynn Intel Group had any foreign governments as clients. When asked whether Flynn’s son Michael, whose LinkedIn profile has him as Flynn’s “chief of staff,” would continue to have a role at the firm should his father move on to the White House, Kelley declined to respond.
“I can’t give you more than what’s in the statement,” he said.