This DC Nonprofit Brings Together Key Players In Flynn Turkey Lobbying Mess (PHOTOS)

Tony Brown, Imajination Photography, Facebook user: Nowruz Commission
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Outside of a lobbying contract that may have benefited the government of Turkey, the principal players in a subplot of the sprawling federal Russia investigation centered on ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn have another point of contact: a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that throws an opulent annual gala.

The Nowruz Commission, an organization founded to “promote and preserve” the Persian New Year, is an under-the-radar link between Flynn, his former business partner, Bijan Kian, and their onetime Turkish client, Ekim Alptekin. In various photos from galas and awards ceremonies dating back several years, the men can be seen separately glad-handing with people involved with the commission while dressed to the nines.

There is no indication that the nonprofit explains the trio’s relationship. Exactly how Flynn met Kian, and why Alptekin contracted their now-shuttered firm, Flynn Intel Group, remains unclear.

Alptekin declined to comment to TPM directly, but through a spokesperson said his “relationship with Mr. Kian and Mr. Flynn was established independently from the Nowruz Commission.”

The photographs indicate that Flynn and Kian, an Iranian-American businessman and former U.S. government official who served on the Trump transition team, were familiar at least a year and a half before teaming up in the fall of 2014 to form the small intelligence consulting firm whose work for Alptekin is under scrutiny by federal investigators.

Photography by: Tony Brown, Imijination Photography

Posted by Nowruz Commission on Monday, April 1, 2013

From left to right: Bijan Kian, Michael T. Flynn, Lori Flynn

The Nowruz Commission was founded in 2010 by Kian, Minnesota businessman Nasser Kazeminy and Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the U.S., Erlan Idrissov. Alptekin, who paid Flynn Intel Group $530,000 to research and produce negative PR materials on exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen during the 2016 campaign, is listed as the commission’s vice chairman, a member of the board of directors and an ambassador representing Turkey. Flynn Intel Group’s general counsel, Robert Kelley, is listed as secretary general of the commission.

In photographs and YouTube videos of the commission’s splashy annual fundraising dinner, Flynn pops up repeatedly. He can be seen seated at the head table by Kian’s side and mingling with guests. At the 2014 gala, in a moment described as the evening’s “highlight,” Flynn helped honor Beeta Christine Rafiekian, Kian’s daughter and the executive director of the Nowruz Commission, with the new title of “Global Nowruz Ambassador.”

Photography by: Tony Brown, Imijination Photography

Posted by Nowruz Commission on Monday, April 1, 2013

From left to right: Gissou Kian, Bijan Kian, Lori Flynn, Michael T. Flynn

That same event provided another point of overlap between the Nowruz Commission and Flynn Intel Group. The mistress of ceremonies at the 2014 gala was former CNN anchor Rudi Bakhtiar, who the firm paid $1,200 to carry out on-camera interviews with several high-profile Turkish generals and journalists who have said they were persecuted by supporters of Gulen. TPM was unable to reach Bakhtiar, but she recently told the Wall Street Journal that Kian, who she described as a family friend, brought her onto the project under false pretenses, even neglecting to disclose at first that the work would be done for Flynn’s firm.

“I’m a journalist,” Bakhtiar told the Journal. “He never said ‘We’re going to make a documentary that’s going to crush Gulen.’ I never would have done it.”

Photography by: Tony Brown, Imijination Photography

Posted by Nowruz Commission on Monday, April 1, 2013

From left to right: Bijan Kian, Rudi Bakhtiar

The annual gala, which raises money for a handful of international humanitarian organizations, seems to be the commission’s most visible and prominent project. For the ticket price of $500 or a sponsorship of between $2,000-$50,000, guests are invited to gather in tony D.C. ballrooms for a night of drinks, live performances and delicacies from the countries represented on the commission.

“This is just a celebratory thing,” Fereydoun “Fred” Nazem, a venture capitalist and Nowruz Commission ambassador who noted he has never actually attended one of the commission’s galas, told TPM in a phone interview. “I’m excited that people are excited about it because it’s such a beautiful and festive occasion. And with all the bad news from that part of the world, this is a very nice, peaceful thing.”

An eclectic mix of celebrities, deep-pocketed businessmen, academics and diplomats compose the commission’s advisory council, board of directors and list of ambassadors. Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) are honorary co-chairs. Iranian actress Shoreh Adgashloo, Gallup chairman and CEO Jim Clifton and Hasan Asadullozoda, a bank executive who is one of the wealthiest men in Tajikistan, are among the dozens of individuals name-checked on the commission’s website.

The Honorable Bijan Kian, Robert Kelley, Ambassador Altekin, Mrs. Safai, President of Nowruz Commission Gissou Kian, Bijan Ganji.

Posted by Rudi Bakhtiar on Friday, February 24, 2017

Another notable name on the commission’s list of ambassadors: Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Kislyak is a central character in the sweeping investigations into Russia’s election interference and possible collusion with Trump campaign officials, and Flynn was forced out of the Trump administration after lying to Vice President Mike Pence and others about his repeated contacts with the well-connected diplomat.

Kian and Flynn’s attorney, Robert Kelner, did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment for this story.

Kelley invoked his role as attorney for Flynn Intel Group when declining comment, saying, “It’s all attorney-client privilege. I can’t talk about it, okay?”

Nancye Miller, a spokesperson for former CIA director Jim Woolsey, who is listed as an ambassador to the commission, directed questions to Kian or Kazeminy, another of the nonprofit’s founders who once was accused of funneling tens of thousands of dollars to former Sen. Norm Coleman’s family and improperly showering Coleman with expensive gifts. Kazeminy’s secretary directed TPM to Jim McGuire, president of Kazeminy’s investment firm NJK Holding Corporation.

“Mr. Kazeminy was one of the co-founders of Nowruz as a private individual.  Nowruz is among the many charities that Mr. Kazeminy has personally supported,” read a statement attributed to NJK Holding. “Questions concerning Mr. Kian should be directed to him.”

Several other individuals involved with the commission did not return requests for comment. Six who did, however, offered effusive praise of Kian and his wife, Gissou, who serves as the commission’s president and CEO. Only one individual recalled seeing Alptekin at Nowruz Commission events, and none offered comment on Flynn or knew of any apparent connection between Flynn Intel Group’s principals and Turkey.

Another member of the commission’s advisory council told TPM that if anything, Turkey was “not represented as much as they should be” in the organization.

Photography by: Tony Brown, Imijination Photography

Posted by Nowruz Commission on Tuesday, April 15, 2014

From left to right: Bijan Kian, Michael T. Flynn

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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