In 2017, Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, acknowledged that he concealed lobbying work that may have helped another country, Turkey. That’s when Bank of America decided it was time for action.
It examined Flynn's business account there, and sent the US Treasury Department what is known as a suspicious activity report about $530,000 in wire transfers that originated from a Turkish bank account.
The half-million dollars Flynn’s firm received has been previously reported. But the writing of the suspicious activity report, and its receipt by the Treasury Department’s 's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, has not. This new information highlights a major finding of the FinCEN Files investigation: Banks often miss suspicious transactions when they occur.
By law, banks must notify the government when they detect transactions bearing the hallmarks of money laundering or other financial misconduct; these signs include large, round-number transactions or payments between companies with no discernible business relationship. But time and again, the FinCEN Files investigation shows that banks examine suspicious activity only after they are prompted by events in the news.
The details in Bank of America’s May 4, 2017 suspicious activity report, or SAR, shed light on Flynn’s actions at a time when they, and his legal fate, are the subject of intense scrutiny.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to making false statements to the FBI. He became a cooperating witness, agreeing to help the government in its case against a former associate charged with illegal lobbying on behalf of Turkey.
But Flynn broke with prosecutors and tried to withdraw that plea. This year, with Trump seeking reelection, Flynn’s case has been caught up in a series of legal battles, and Trump’s Justice Department has sought to have the prosecution withdrawn — despite the guilty plea.
A federal judge is currently sorting through the case, trying to determine whether Attorney General Bill Barr has standing to, in effect, exonerate Flynn.
The Bank of America SAR was included in a trove of records compiled by law enforcement as part of its inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The documents are part of the more than 2,100 suspicious activity reports that BuzzFeed News received and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 news organizations around the world as part of the FinCEN Files investigation. SARs are not in and of themselves evidence of a crime, but they can support investigations and intelligence gathering.
Bill Halldin, a Bank of America spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News he could not respond to questions about Flynn Intel Group’s transactions. “We don't comment on the existence of suspicious activity reports,” he said.
Flynn’s attorney, Sidney Powell, did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the SAR, Bank of America decided to review the account of Flynn Intel Group after Trump fired Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017. Trump said he took that action because Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with then–Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and, a month later, revealed in documents filed with the Justice Department that though he had never registered as a foreign agent, his lobbying work may have “principally benefited” the government of Turkey. Flynn would later admit to prosecutors that he made false statements in those documents.
Bank of America’s automated monitoring systems as well as news reports about Flynn and his firm sparked the review of his account, according to the SAR. It cites revelations about the deal Flynn’s company struck with a Dutch firm, Inovo BV, and its Turkish owner, Ekim Alptekin.
The bank’s SAR flagged three large wire deposits — totaling $530,000 — into Flynn Intel Group’s account from Alptekin, payments that originated from Yapı Kredi bank in Istanbul.
“Due to the negative media regarding the relationship between former national security advisor Michael Flynn and Turkish entrepreneur Ekim Altekin [sic] and questions surrounding the source of funds, the wire deposits appear suspicious,” the SAR said.
Details presented in the SAR show that the bank had reasons to be suspicious even before the negative headlines about Flynn emerged. Among those details:
- The wire transfers from Alptekin, ranging from $145,000 to $200,000, “did not contain any additional information to explain the purpose of the wires,” the SAR says.
- The SAR adds that “there are questions regarding the source of funds that Alptekin used.”
- The report also describes other transactions that appeared opaque, noting that the “purpose of the transfers is unknown.”
- After the transfers from Alptekin, the Flynn account sent checks that added up to more than $500,000 over the course of three months in 2016. The SAR notes that the checks were in round-dollar payments, considered one hallmark of suspicious activity or money laundering.
According to the SAR, the wire transfers from Alptekin took place between Sept. 9 and Nov. 14, 2016, while Flynn was serving as an adviser to Donald Trump’s campaign. Court documents have alleged that Alptekin’s firm, Inovo, was really just a front and that Flynn and his associates were being paid to work for the Turkish government.
Alptekin’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
But in an interview with BuzzFeed News in 2017, Alptekin said, “We did nothing wrong and we’re being vilified and demonized in the press and getting threats and our careers are being destroyed.”
Inovo hired Flynn Intel Group to conduct a public relations and lobbying campaign to discredit Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric in Pennsylvania, and to help convince US officials to extradite him to Turkey. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Gülen of planning a failed coup against him in 2016.
A couple of months after Flynn’s company entered into its contract with Inovo, Flynn became the subject of an inquiry by the Justice Department’s counterespionage division, according to documents BuzzFeed News obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The inquiry followed a Nov. 8, 2016, op-ed Flynn wrote for the Hill arguing that the “primary bone of contention between the U.S. and Turkey is Fethullah Gülen, a shady Islamic mullah residing in Pennsylvania whom former President Clinton once called his ‘friend’ in a well circulated video.”
Flynn’s lobbying and public relations contract would later become the subject of an investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller. When he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, Flynn also admitted he lied on the paperwork he filled out when he retroactively registered as a foreign agent. Specifically, according to court papers, he said the op-ed in the Hill was his idea. Flynn failed to disclose that he knew Turkish government officials “provided supervision and direction” over the project.
In tracing transfers that occurred in 2016 after money from Alptekin flowed into Flynn Intel Group, the Bank of America SAR provides hints about the purpose of those transactions. Checks, for instance, were sent to an individual identified as “Bijan R. Kian,’’ apparently referring to Flynn Intel Group cofounder Bijan Rafiekian, who sometimes uses that name.
The SAR notes that the checks referenced “confidence” or “Boston.” According to court documents, “confidence” refers to the code name for the Gülen project that Rafiekian and Alptekin came up with. A source said “Boston” refers to Michael Boston, a former US intelligence operative who was identified in documents as the “engagement manager for the project.”
Both Alptekin and Rafiekian later faced federal charges. Alptekin was indicted for lying to the FBI and conspiring to violate federal lobbying laws. The case against Alptekin, who resides in Istanbul, remains active.
Rafiekian was convicted in July 2019 by a federal jury for acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government and conspiracy. Three months later, a judge overturned Rafiekian’s conviction. Last June, prosecutors asked an appeals court to overturn his acquittal.
Mark MacDougall, an attorney for Rafiekian, told BuzzFeed News that the filing of the SAR “adds nothing to the public record” of his client’s case.
“Everything about the payments to Flynn Intel Group from that firm’s private client – and the subsequent disbursements for the work that was done – was fully ventilated during the trial," he wrote in an email.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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