Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible ties between the Donald Trump election campaign and Russia, is expanding his probe to include a grand jury investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, sources have said.
The move means Mueller's politically charged inquiry will now look into Flynn's paid work as a lobbyist for a Turkish businessman in 2016, in addition to contacts between Russian officials and Mr Flynn and other Trump associates during and after the presidential election.
Federal prosecutors in Virginia are investigating a deal between Flynn and Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin as part of a grand jury criminal probe, according to a subpoena seen by Reuters.
Mr Alptekin's company, Netherlands-based Inovo BV, paid Flynn's consultancy $530,000 between September and November to produce a documentary and research on Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric living in the United States. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Mr Gulen for a failed coup last July.
Mr Alptekin, an ally of Mr Erdogan, told Reuters he hired Flynn to provide research on how Mr Gulen is "poisoning the atmosphere" between Turkey and the United States.
Mr Gulen has denied any role in the coup and dismisses Turkey's allegations that he heads a terrorist organisation.
The grand jury in Virginia has issued subpoenas to some of Mr Flynn's business associates involved in the work for Inovo, two people familiar with the probe say. The subpoena seen by Reuters seeks bank records, documents and communications related to Mr Flynn, his company, Flynn Intel Group, Alptekin and Inovo.
Mr Flynn's lawyer, Robert Kelner, did not respond to questions about Mr Flynn's work for Inovo or Mueller's investigation. A spokesman for Mr Mueller declined to comment.
Mr Alptekin declined to comment when asked about the investigation into Flynn and whether he or anyone he knows has been subpoenaed.
Mr Mueller's move to take over the Virginia grand jury's criminal investigation highlights his broad powers as special counsel.
Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mr Mueller, a former FBI director, on 17 May to oversee an investigation into any links or collusion between Russia and individuals associated with the Trump campaign. Mr Rosenstein also gave him authority to pursue âany matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.“
Some members of Congress have asked the Justice Department to define the scope of Mr Mueller's inquiry.
Mr Mueller's appointment followed an uproar over Trumpâs firing of FBI Director James Comey, who had been investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Democrats and some of the president's fellow Republicans had demanded an independent probe of whether Russia tried to sway the outcome of November's election in favour of Mr Trump and against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Mr Trump, who has said there was no coordination between his campaign and Russia, has decried the investigation as a âwitch hunt.â
One of Mr Trump's most trusted aides during the election campaign, Mr Flynn had a long career in the military. He set up the Flynn Intel Group, an Alexandria, Virginia-based intelligence consultancy, after President Barack Obama dismissed him as head of the military's Defence Intelligence Agency in 2014.
Mr Mueller, who takes over leadership of an FBI investigation that began last July, can present evidence to grand juries and hear testimony from witnesses.
Mr Trump fired Mr Flynn in February after it became clear that he had falsely characterised the nature of phone conversations he had with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in December, just after the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Russia for what US intelligence agencies had concluded was a Kremlin-led effort through computer hacking, fake news and propaganda to boost Mr Trump's chances of winning the White House.
Mr Flynn's work for Inovo came under scrutiny after he published a commentary on a political news website on Election Day calling Gulen a "radical Islamist" who should be extradited to Turkey.
Along with the editorial, the Flynn Intel Group also produced a 75-page report on Mr Gulen based mainly on news reports and some video footage for a documentary that was never made, according to three people familiar with the project.
Mr Alptekin, who is chairman of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council, told Reuters he was satisfied with Mr Flynn's research because it had helped him understand how Gulen's network operates in the United States.
He said the $530,000 payment to Flynn's firm came “mostly” from his personal funds.
The House of Representatives intelligence committee, which is also investigating Russian interference in the election, subpoenaed records from Mr Flynn on Wednesday. The Senate's intelligence committee, which has a separate probe under way, has also served subpoenas on Flynn and two of his businesses, and earlier this week Mr Flynn indicated that he would start turning over relevant materials.
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