Russian company that paid Flynn deemed ‘unsuitable’ by Pentagon

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 10, 2017.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 10, 2017. AP

A Russian air cargo carrier that paid former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn more than $11,000 had been blacklisted without warning by the Pentagon months before he became Donald Trump’s top campaign adviser on military matters, according to documents obtained by McClatchy.

Documents released Thursday by Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform omitted an important piece of information: At the time that the U.S. affiliate of Russian cargo airline Volga-Dnepr paid Flynn $11,250 in August 2015, the Russian company had been frozen out by the Pentagon since February that year and was trying to learn why.

“Unsuitable for use,” is how a U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) email in May 2015 characterized the air cargo carrier.

One possible explanation in the heavily redacted documents obtained by McClatchy: Volga-Dnepr in December 2014 ferried two Su-30MK2 attack aircraft to Da Nang, Vietnam, on behalf of Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport.

The Russian defense firm was one of 23 ‑ including some in China and Turkey ‑ hit by U.S. sanctions in September 2015 for alleged violations of treaties that banned the spread of missile technologies.

Documents released Thursday by Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House oversight committee, about Volga-Dnepr showed that an affiliate of the air cargo company had paid Flynn $11,250 in August 2015.

The revelation that Flynn was paid by a Russian air cargo firm considered off-limits by the Pentagon first emerged in a posting Friday by blogger Cristo Grozev, a Bulgarian with media interests in Western Europe and Ukraine.

Flynn’s speech to the Russian company was arranged by U.S.-based Battle Born Munitions, which had co-sponsored a Middle East & African Logistical and Security conference in Washington with the Houston-based subsidiary of Volga-Dnepr, according to a statement provided to American Shipper magazine. It said Friday that Battle Born had gone through the Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau.

“At that time General Flynn was a retired military officer, not a member of President Trump’s election team, and his nomination as national security adviser more than a year after the conference was not a factor in his being invited as a speaker,” the statement said.

Efforts to reach Flynn and associates were unsuccessful.

Four months after he was paid for the Volga-Dnepr speech, Flynn was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a dinner in Moscow paid for by the RT news network. RT paid Flynn and his speakers’ bureau more than $45,000, according to the documents Thursday from Cummings.

Asked why Volga-Dnepr’s contract blacklisting was not included in the Cummings report a day earlier, a Democratic committee aide said Friday, “Every day we are learning new information about General Flynn’s ties to Russia, and we will continue to gather as much information as possible.”

Flynn was a decorated combat veteran who rose to the rank of lieutenant general and was appointed by President Barack Obama to head the Defense Intelligence Agency in October 2012. After repeated clashes with superiors, he took early retirement in August 2014 and soon afterward opened a consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group. He was tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as national security adviser in November 2016.

But Flynn’s tenure lasted just 24 days, brought down by reports that he had not been truthful with Vice President Mike Pence about meetings in December with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. After being fired by Trump on Feb. 13, Flynn belatedly registered with the Justice Department weeks later as a foreign agent, disclosing that he had been paid more than $530,000 for lobbying work before the inauguration. It meant he was collecting money from foreign governments even as he sat in on transition-team classified briefings.

State Department cables published by the WikiLeaks website show that Volga-Dnepr has long been both a partner and a worry for the U.S. military.

The Russian-based cargo airline flew about 13,000 missions as a subcontractor for USTRANSCOM from 2002 to 2014, according to Volga-Dnepr’s Freedom of Information Act appeal last year.

Volga-Dnepr had filed a Freedom of Information Act request in an effort to pry loose the reasons behind the sudden blacklisting of a company that had long cooperated with the U.S. Air Force’s Transportation Command.

The cargo airline had worked for the United Nations, as well. But it was suspended from a list of approved vendors in 2007 after two Russian U.N. officials were prosecuted for steering contracts to the airline in exchange for bribes, according to the House Democrats’ report.

Sergey Reznikov, a Volga-Dnepr vice president in Woodland Hills, Texas, wrote to USTRANSCOM attorneys that the company’s sudden removal as a subcontractor “has caused a ripple effect to/with our customers.”

It was one of many in 37 pages of documents obtained by McClatchy that were released to the Russian air carrier by the government. Most of the explanations for the blacklisting were heavily redacted.

Court records show that Volga-Dnepr’s attorneys, from the Washington firm of Squire Patton Boggs, reached a tentative deal with military lawyers around Feb. 10. A status update on the lawsuit was scheduled for Friday, but no court records had been posted by the close of business.

Attorney Michael Guiffre, who filed the appeal of the Pentagon’s redactions, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Reznikov. A co-worker in the global defense division of the air carrier abruptly ended a phone conversation when asked about Flynn’s speech.

State Department records published through an infamous leak by London-based transparency advocate WikiLeaks show Volga-Dnepr was a long-standing concern to U.S. diplomats, too.

In a confidential Nov. 17, 2007, cable to headquarters, a diplomat in the U.S. embassy in Berlin reported that the German government had blocked a Russian arms shipment that stopped on its way to Venezuela.

The cable said the Germans had acted on a tip from the Portuguese embassy, which had warned that Russian rockets were being sent to Venezuela, stopping first in the German city of Leipzig. The shipment, carried by Volga-Dnepr, was on behalf of Rosoboronexport.

In another confidential cable, sent on June 15, 2009, by Richard Olson, U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, headquarters was notified that four American soldiers had been detained, along with the crew of a Volga-Dnepr flight. The U.S. military escorts were accompanying weaponry bound for Afghanistan, which had not been declared to local authorities.

Greg Gordon contributed to this report.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ

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