By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI, according to court documents released on Friday, in an escalation of an investigation into alleged ties to Russia that has cast a cloud over President Donald Trump's administration.
The Office of the Special Counsel said Flynn was charged with making false statements about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States.
The office, which is investigating accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and potential collusion by Trump's campaign, said a plea hearing for Flynn had been set for Friday.
Flynn, a retired Army general, was expected to plead guilty. He arrived at a court in downtown Washington on Friday morning. Lawyers for Flynn could not be immediately reached for comment.
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Flynn, who was fired from his White House post in February for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, is a central figure in the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
He is the second former senior aide to Trump to be charged in the probe. Mueller's investigation and several congressional probes into the matter have dogged Trump's administration since the Republican president took office on Jan. 20.
Paul Manafort, who ran Trump's presidential campaign for several months last year, was charged in October with conspiring to launder money, conspiracy against the United States and failing to register as a foreign agent of Ukraine's former pro-Russian government.
Manafort, who did not serve in Trump's administration, and a business associate who was charged with him, pleaded not guilty.
‘BRIGHT NEON SIGN'
The charge against Flynn carries a sentence of up to five years.
A plea deal suggests he has provided information that could help Mueller's probe. Last month, lawyers for Flynn told Trump's legal team they could no longer discuss the federal Russia probe, indicating Flynn may be cooperating with the investigation.
"Those in Flynn's orbit should be terrified by today's development. This charge is a bright neon sign announcing Flynn is cooperating," said Steven Miller, a lawyer at the firm of Reed Smith LLP and former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago.
Flynn was also a senior adviser to Trump during the election campaign and in the transition period after the election and before the president took office.
He was known for vitriolic campaign appearances, notably leading Trump supporters' chants of "Lock Her Up," in reference to Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and accusations she misused email while she was secretary of state.
In the filing with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the special counsel's office said Flynn made false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Jan. 24.
Flynn falsely told FBI officials that in December 2016 he did not ask Russia's ambassador to the United States to refrain from escalating the situation after Washington had imposed sanctions on Moscow, according to the filing.
The Obama administration, which was still in office at the time, had imposed the sanctions on Moscow for allegedly interfering in the election.
Flynn is also charged in the filing, dated Nov. 30, with lying about asking the ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, to help delay a vote in the U.N. Security Council that was seen as damaging to Israel.
Moscow has denied a conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that it meddled in the election campaign to try to sway the vote in Trump's favor. Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign.