By Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld
(Reuters) - Former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn has dismissed the lawyers who represented him in his guilty plea and cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and retained new counsel, according to a court filing on Thursday.
While no reason was given for the termination of Robert Kelner and Stephen Anthony of the Covington & Burling law firm, the move comes after a contentious hearing in December when a judge excoriated Flynn for lying to the FBI and other actions leading to his guilty plea.
The judge's comments were prompted by a sentencing memo in which Kelner and Anthony noted that Flynn was not explicitly warned by FBI agents that lying to them was a crime, appearing to suggest that he was entrapped.
In Thursday's filing, Kelner and Anthony said Flynn had fired them and they asked to withdraw as his lawyers, a move that must be approved by the court.
"As only sentencing remains in this case ... and General Flynn has already retained new counsel, withdrawal at this time would not be prejudicial to any of the parties or otherwise inconsistent with the interests of justice," they wrote.
Flynn's new lawyer has not yet been disclosed.
Kelner declined to comment further.
Changing lawyers has been on Flynn's mind for some time as he and Kelner often have not agreed and do not have a good rapport, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Flynn, who was ousted as national security adviser in 2017 in the first month of Donald Trump's presidency, pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his December 2016 conversations with Sergei Kislyak, then Russia's ambassador in Washington, about U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow by the administration of Trump's Democratic predecessor Barack Obama. The conversations took place between Trump's November 2016 election victory and his inauguration in January 2017.
Flynn cooperated extensively with Mueller's investigation, which did not find sufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign but documented multiple instances of attempts by Trump to impede the probe while stopping short of saying whether he committed a crime.
Flynn had been scheduled to be sentenced at a Dec. 13 hearing but U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan delivered a blistering critique and recommended sentencing be put off until after he has finished helping prosecutors with other investigations and could get full credit for it.
Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security issues, said it was unlikely Flynn would look to make a dramatic turn in his legal strategy, such as withdrawing his guilty plea.
"There could be something more to this but given how late in the game this is, I can't imagine this is about anything more than money," Moss said, noting that Covington was an expensive, top-tier law firm.
Flynn still is cooperating with prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia against his former business partner, Bijan Rafiekian, who was indicted on allegations of unregistered lobbying on behalf of Turkey. Rafiekian has pleaded not guilty and his trial is scheduled to begin in July.
(reporting by Jonathan Stempel, Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in New York; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Bill Trott)