The intelligence consulting firm founded by Donald Trump’s national security advisor may have violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) by failing to disclose details of its lobbying work for two foreign companies.
As The Daily Caller has reported, Flynn Intel Group, a consulting company founded by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, disclosed to Congress in September that it was lobbying on behalf of a Dutch company called Inovo BV.
The owner of that company, a Turkish-Dutch businessman named Ekim Alptekin, was working on behalf of a foreign oil and gas exploration company based in the Middle East. (RELATED: Trump’s National Security Advisor Lobbied On Behalf Of Businessman With Ties To Turkish Government)
Federal law allows lobbyists and public relations consultants working for foreign entities to avoid registering under FARA if they disclose their activities to Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
And while Flynn Intel Group did register with Congress, an expert on the government lobbying industry says that the failure to identify the foreign energy company who was also involved in the lobbying effort could be a violation of FARA.
“If the business transaction between the two firms was for the purpose of waging the lobby campaign — which it has every appearance of being so — then the companies are violating FARA in an effort to evade its disclosure requirement and illegally conceal the true source behind the lobby campaign,” says Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen.
Alptekin told Buzzfeed News that Robert Kelley, the lobbyist who handled the Inovo BV contract for Flynn Intel Group, knew that Inovo was working with the foreign energy company.
Flynn Intel Group’s relationship with Inovo BV came to light several days after Trump was elected president. Days earlier, on Election Day, Flynn wrote an op-ed published in The Hill in which he praised Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Flynn also called on the U.S. government to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric exiled in Pennsylvania who Erdogan blames for masterminding a July 15 coup against the Turkish government.
The pro-Turkey op-ed raised questions because Flynn has criticized Erdogan in the past. He had also never commented publicly on Gulen’s extradition.
Alptekin’s ties to the Turkish government have also raised red flags for watchdogs and Democrats in Congress. The sole proprietor of Inovo BV, Alptekin is the chairman of the Turkish-U.S. Business Council (TAIK), a trade group that operates under the umbrella of Turkey’s Foreign Economics Relations Board, which is known as DEIK in Turkey.
DEIK, of which Alptekin is a board member, is controlled by the Turkish government and has registered under FARA in the past.
Alptekin has denied any involvement in Flynn’s decision to publish the pro-Turkey op-ed. He also tells TheDC that he does not work for Erdogan and that TAIK operates independently of the Turkish government.
In an interview with TheDC, Alptekin said that hired Flynn’s firm in order to help the energy company with a deal to export gas to Turkey.
Alptekin’s Inovo, which was founded in the Netherlands in 2005, signed a contract with the company months ago, well before he ever made contact with Flynn Intel Group. Alptekin, who owns real estate and aviation companies, said that Flynn Intel Group, which Flynn founded in 2014, was hired to help with security issues associated with a multi-billion dollar gas deal. He also says that while he has met Flynn several times, he worked with Kelley on the lobbying effort.
While Alptekin insists that he did not represent the Turkish government in his relations with Flynn Intel Group, Gulen’s extradition does weigh on the deal because of the exiled cleric’s importance to Turkey’s government.
He said that it is in the energy company’s interest to find out “what’s causing problems” in the relationship between Turkey and the West.
“What could continue to create a longer term problem in the relationship?” said Alptekin, adding that the “Gulenist issue, typically, is one of them.”
Alptekin also told TheDC that the lobbying contract has expired and that it likely will not be renewed because of the attention it has received in the press. Flynn announced a day before Trump tapped him as national security advisor that he was cutting ties with Flynn Intel Group, where his son serves as chief of staff.
Reached by phone this week, Kelley, the lobbyist for Flynn Intel Group on the five-figure Inovo contract, declined to discuss the placement of the op-ed. Sphere Consulting, a PR firm that Flynn Intel Group hired to work on the contract, also declined to discuss the op-ed. The Hill also declined to say who submitted the article.
Public Citizen’s Holman said that the lobbying quagmire mirrors the one that ensnared Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager.
“This is similar to the DOJ investigation now underway regarding [former Donald Trump campaign manager Paul] Manafort fronting a lobby campaign for foreign parties,” Holman told TheDC.
Manafort is reportedly under investigation for failing to register as a lobbyist on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. That organization had ties to Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president at the time. Manafort and two other lobbyists worked for the European Centre in 2012.
That particular lobbying was disclosed to Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. But as with the Inovo-Flynn Intel Group relationship, it was not disclosed under FARA.