May 10, 2018 11:04:50 AM
WASHINGTON -- Already under investigation for a payment to a porn star, President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney is facing intensifying legal and ethical scrutiny for selling his Trump World experience and views at a hefty price to companies that sought "insight" into the new president.
One company, pharmaceutical giant Novartis, acknowledged Wednesday it paid Michael Cohen $1.2 million for services, though they ended after a single meeting. Others, including some with major regulatory matters before the new administration, acknowledged payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over at least several months.
The corporate ties could suggest Cohen was peddling his influence and profiting from his relationship with the president. They also raise questions about whether Trump knew about the arrangement.
Cohen's corporate ties were first revealed in a detailed report released by an attorney for pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels. The report alleged that Cohen used a company he established weeks before the 2016 election to receive the payments from a variety of businesses -- including $500,000 from one associated with a Russian billionaire. Financial documents reviewed by the Associated Press appear to back up much of attorney Michael Avenatti's report.
Cohen's lawyers said late Wednesday that much of the information released by Avenatti was "completely inaccurate." They told a New York judge that Avenatti made statements "in an apparent attempt to prejudice and discredit Mr. Cohen" as he seeks to intervene in a civil case Cohen brought stemming from April 9 raids on his home and office. The raids were carried out by federal agents looking for evidence in a criminal probe.
The lawyers wrote that some of the information Avenatti published Tuesday did appear to come from Cohen's actual bank records.
Aventti responded on Twitter, saying the attorneys "fail to address, let alone contradict, 99% of the statements in what we released. Among other things, they effectively concede the receipt of the $500,000 from those with Russian ties."
Three companies confirmed the payments, including Novartis and AT&T, both saying Cohen's Essential Consultants was hired to help them understand the new president during the early days of the Trump administration. Novartis said in a statement that it paid Cohen $100,000 a month for a year-long contract, thinking the longtime New York legal "fixer" with few Washington ties could advise on health care matters. After a single meeting they decided "not to engage further."
Some of the companies that engaged Cohen also had contact with Trump personally. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson met with him during the transition and has visited the White House as the company has sought approval to absorb Time Warner. The current CEO of Novartis attended a dinner with Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year, though the company stressed that the agreement with Cohen's company predated his time as CEO and he was not involved with the deal.
Just what Cohen was selling was a key question Wednesday, particularly given that public records show he is not a registered lobbyist. Cohen could enter these relationships without violating federal lobbying laws if he did not seek to influence Trump on the companies' behalf. But hiring Trump's personal attorney for advice on how to understand the president would be highly unusual.
Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said Cohen's consulting work sounds more like pay-to-play lobbying.
"It stretches the imagination that the work was just for advice. There is no reason that he would have any blinding insights," Weissman said. "Sending money to a shell company, instead of his business, that sets off some alarm bell. Nothing of this seems right."
Some of the dealings have caught the attention of the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. A spokesman for Novartis said the company was contacted in November by Robert Mueller's office regarding its agreement with Essential Consultants, which expired this year.
AT&T also said it was contacted last year by Mueller's office "regarding Michael Cohen." The company said it "cooperated fully, providing all information requested in November and December of 2017." AT&T added that its consulting contract with Cohen expired at the end of the year and it has received no questions since.
Cohen also used the company to pay a $130,000 payment to Daniels just before the 2016 election in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with the president. Cohen is under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, but has not been charged.
Getting into a taxi in New York City Wednesday, Cohen said of Avenatti, "His document is inaccurate," according to NBC News.
Cohen has told associates that Avenatti's claims are overheated, and he has maintained that he has not done anything wrong, according to a person familiar with the attorney's views but not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Cohen, who until January 2017 worked for the Trump Organization, was a fixture in the company's headquarters in Trump Tower in the weeks before the president took office. Ex-campaign officials did not recall Cohen or Trump ever discussing Cohen's plans to launch consulting firm, according to three ex-campaign officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Some who used to work for Trump defended Cohen's actions, assuming he did not break any regulations about lobbying.
"Corporations want to pay for insight, advocacy and expertise on a White House," said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg. "Michael offered that. He didn't do anything wrong, he did what lots of people have done over the years."
The Treasury Department's Office of the Inspector General said Wednesday it was investigating how allegations about Cohen's banking records became public, a response to the memo released by Avenatti.
Inspector general counsel Rich Delmar said the agency's actions stem from its authority as the federal agency that analyzes banking records for potential illegal activity. Under the Bank Secrecy Act, financial institutions must monitor their customers' activities and report suspicious transactions to the government. But that information is supposed to remain confidential.
Avenatti, who has not disclosed where he got his information or released any documents, declined to comment on the probe. But he has called on Cohen and Trump to release their banking records and has urged the Treasury Department to release a so-called suspicious activities report on Essential Consultants.
According to Avenatti's memo, Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire, and his cousin, Andrew Intrater, "routed" eight payments totaling about $500,000 to Cohen's company between January and August 2017. The payments were made by Columbus Nova, an American investment company, Avenatti alleges.
Andrey Shtorkh, a spokesman for Vekselberg said in a statement that Vekselberg did not have a "contractual relationship" with Cohen or his firm.
Columbus Nova's lawyer, Richard Owens, said the company hired Cohen after Trump's inauguration in January 2017 as a business consultant "regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures," but that it had nothing to do with Vekselberg.
At the time of the payments, there was an FBI counterintelligence investigation, which special counsel Mueller took over last May, into Russian election interference and any possible coordination with Trump associates.
Vekselberg was targeted for U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration last month. He built his fortune, currently estimated by Forbes at $14.6 billion, by investing in the aluminum and oil industries. More recently, he has expanded his assets to include industrial equipment and high technology.
AT&T said in a statement that Essential Consultants was one of several firms it "engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration." Avenatti alleged that the company made four $50,000 payments to Cohen totaling $200,000 in late 2017 and early 2018. AT&T said Cohen's company "did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017."
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