Yellow cabs and apartment houses: FBI is taking a broad look at Michael Cohen's business

President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen enters a restaurant in Manhattan, April 10, 2018. (Photo: Amir Levy/Reuters)
President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen enters a restaurant in Manhattan, April 10, 2018. (Photo: Amir Levy/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — When FBI agents raided the office and residences of President Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen this week, they were looking for much more than evidence of hush-money payoffs to women the president might have slept with, sources familiar with the investigation say.

In the weeks leading up to the raid, prosecutors working with special counsel Robert Mueller asked pointed questions about Cohen’s personal real estate deals, his efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, and his family’s taxi business, as well as payments to actress Stormy Daniels, a source who was among those questioned told Yahoo News.

This interest from the special counsel preceded Monday’s FBI raids on Cohen’s office, his home and a Manhattan hotel where he had been staying. The New York Times reported that the raid stemmed partially from a referral from Mueller, and that it sought records related to Cohen’s cab business and the payments to the women. This new information about the questions Mueller’s team had about Cohen reveals that the FBI’s interest in Cohen’s personal finances and foreign business dealings goes even deeper.

Cohen has not responded to multiple requests from Yahoo News. His lawyer, Stephen Ryan, declined to comment on whether the FBI is looking into Cohen’s business history.

“I’m not taking calls in my office from the press. Thanks,” Ryan said before hanging up.

Ryan did not respond to a subsequent email from Yahoo News.

The U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York also declined to comment about any matter related to Cohen.

On Monday, the day of the FBI raid, the multinational law firm and lobbying powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs said it was ending what had been described as a “strategic alliance” with Cohen that was announced almost exactly one year ago. According to the New York Law Journal, Cohen was a mysterious presence at the firm, with many of his colleagues unclear about his role and troubled by the murky arrangement even before FBI agents burst into his office.

FBI officials reportedly raided the offices of Michael Cohen at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, April 9, 2018. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
FBI officials reportedly raided the offices of Michael Cohen at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, April 9, 2018. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In the wake of the FBI raid, many of Cohen’s other business associates refused to answer questions about their relationship with him. This included the Republican National Committee, which gave Cohen a top fundraising position almost exactly one year ago.

On April 3, 2017, the RNC named Cohen a national deputy chairman of its Finance leadership team. The announcement cited the “more than a decade” that Cohen had spent as an executive at Trump’s real estate company. It also noted that Cohen “sat on the boards of multiple Trump organizations, including Trump Productions, the Eric Trump Foundation, and the Miss Universe Organization.” The RNC touted Cohen’s support for Trump’s political efforts, including “raising millions of dollars for his campaign” and serving as “an active spokesperson and advisor for the President during his interest in seeking office since 2011.” Patton Boggs noted Cohen’s role at the RNC when his relationship with the firm was announced.

Yahoo News called the RNC’s press office on Thursday to confirm whether Cohen is still a national deputy chairman of the party’s Finance leadership team. A woman who answered the phone said she believed Cohen still has a position with the party. She said we should email the communications team for a “proper statement” about his role.

Over the next several hours, the RNC did not respond to that email. Yahoo News subsequently called the RNC, seeking a response. The woman who answered the phone this second time said the earlier call had been answered by an “intern” and she would not confirm whether Cohen remains with the RNC.

The RNC also would not say whether the FBI had taken records related to his fundraising. RNC finance chairman Todd Ricketts did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Cohen.

It may be hard for the party to cast Cohen aside, given his close relationship with the president. The FBI’s raid on Cohen reportedly enraged Trump, who called it a “real disgrace” and accused Mueller of conducting a “total witch hunt” during an appearance at the White House on Monday. Trump’s response to the Cohen raid has led to mounting speculation that he could seek to fire Mueller.

Cohen’s personal real estate business, which has apparently attracted the attention of the FBI, may not be as high profile as Trump’s, but it’s not small either. Cohen has owned multiple New York City apartment buildings, including one he reportedly purchased in 2015 for $58 million. Cohen’s real estate investments led to his first public association with Trump. According to an article in the New York Post, Cohen purchased an apartment at Trump World Tower in Manhattan in 2001. The Post noted that Cohen was “so impressed” with Trump’s building that he “convinced his parents, his in-laws and a business partner to buy there, too.”

Trump World Tower in New York City. (Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)
Trump World Tower in New York City. (Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

“Cohen’s in-laws went on purchase two more units there and one at Trump Grande in Sunny Isles, Fla.,” the Post article said.

In that newspaper story, which was published in 2007, Trump was quoted praising Cohen for buying in his buildings.

“Michael Cohen has a great insight into the real-estate market. … He has invested in my buildings because he likes to make money — and he does,” Trump said, adding, “In short, he’s a very smart person.”

Cohen became an executive at the Trump Organization that same year.

Public records show that Fima and Ania Shusterman, the parents of Cohen’s wife, Laura, have lived at Trump World Tower. The Shustermans are Ukrainian. Cohen’s brother, Bryan, also married a Ukrainian woman. Bryan Cohen’s father-in-law, Alex Oronov, purchased an apartment at Trump Hollywood in Florida in 2010.

Cohen’s Ukrainian in-laws have had extensive business dealings with him, including his taxi operation.

According to an analysis from the Real Deal, a local real estate industry trade publication, Cohen owned at least 34 taxi medallions in New York City as of 2017. That’s a multimillion-dollar operation. Medallions are a license to operate a yellow cab in the city and, in the past, have been worth as much as $1 million each. In more recent years, the yellow cab business has suffered due to the rise of ride-sharing apps like Uber, and the medallions have sold for under $200,000.

The Huffington Post documented how Cohen inherited part of his taxi business from the Shustermans. According to the news site Talking Points Memo, which has extensively chronicled Cohen’s business dealings and ties to Eastern Europe, the medallions were subsequently managed by a Ukrainian cab entrepreneur named Simon Garber, who had been a client of Cohen’s and has a lengthy police record. Talking Points Memo reported that the Cohen family’s partnership with Garber fell apart amid a legal dispute in 2012. Yahoo News called Garber on Thursday to ask about his dealings with Cohen, and he was decidedly not forthcoming.

Michael Cohen arrives at his hotel in New York, April 11, 2018. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)
Michael Cohen arrives at his hotel in New York, April 11, 2018. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)

“Who’s Michael Cohen?” he asked before hanging up the phone.

The family’s medallions were then managed by Russian-born Evgeny Freidman, who is known as the “taxi king” for his New York City cab empire. Reached on the phone Wednesday, Freidman, who has had a litany of legal issues, also hung up without discussing his relationship with Cohen.

“I’m not interested,” Freidman said.

In a previous conversation with Talking Points Memo, Freidman said that he and Cohen are both friends and partners.

“I help him out as much as I can. I also have a business relationship, but we’re friends, you know. We have dinner with his wife,” Freidman said.

Yahoo News briefly spoke to Cohen’s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, on Wednesday. Shusterman would not discuss the family’s taxi ventures.

“I am not in taxi business long time,” Shusterman said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

On Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported that the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance has said Cohen and his wife owe more than $55,000 in unpaid taxes connected to their taxi business. The oldest tax warrants are from 2013, and the total amount of alleged debt has grown by more than $15,000 since last August. Back then, Talking Points Memo asked about the debt, and Cohen suggested it was connected to Freidman’s tax issues. Freidman was arrested in 2017 and charged with failing to pay millions to the state.

The taxi operation isn’t the only time Cohen entered into business with his Ukrainian in-laws. In 2006, Oronov, Bryan Cohen’s father-in-law, teamed up with the two brothers on multiple companies involved in the Ukrainian ethanol industry. Those ventures were also detailed by Talking Points Memo and BuzzFeed. Bryan Cohen did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Oronov passed away in March 2017.

After Cohen began working for the Trump Organization in 2007, he became the future president’s self-described fiercely loyal fixer.

“If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen said in a 2011 interview with ABC News.

Cohen was one of Trump’s earliest political advisers who counseled the future president when he had just a handful of aides working on a campaign that wasn’t taken seriously by the Washington establishment. Cohen never officially joined Trump’s campaign, but he led an outside organization aimed at helping Trump win over minority voters. Cohen also regularly made television appearances on Trump’s behalf, including a famous interview where he questioned poll numbers.

Michael Cohen, personal lawyer for then-President-elect Trump, gets into an elevator at Trump Tower, Dec. 12, 2016, in New York City. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen, personal lawyer for then-President-elect Trump, gets into an elevator at Trump Tower, Dec. 12, 2016, in New York City. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It’s Cohen’s work behind the scenes of the campaign that has attracted the FBI’s interest — trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and paying a porn star who claimed Trump had an affair with her.

Cohen has confirmed that he reached out to the Kremlin as the Trump Organization pursued the Moscow project from September 2015 until January 2016, which was during Trump’s presidential bid. In a statement to CNN, Cohen described the Trump Moscow proposal as “one of many development opportunities that the Trump Organization considered and ultimately rejected.” Though the project didn’t come to fruition, it’s an obvious area of interest to Mueller’s probe, which is focused on the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 election. The U.S. intelligence community has said that this Russian interference was aimed at helping Trump win the race.

Trump Moscow was reportedly the brainchild of Felix Sater, a Russian developer who had office space in Trump’s Manhattan headquarters and had a deal to build Trump-branded properties. In a May 2016 interview with Yahoo News, Trump suggested that he barely knew Sater.

“He was a guy who would bring deals up here, but we did very few of them. … Who was that? Sa-ter? Sater, yeah, we did very few of the deals,” Trump said. “He was somebody that he worked for a company, he worked for a company and he would bring deals to us, but we did very few of the deals.”

Yahoo News reached out to Sater on Wednesday to ask about his relationship with Cohen. Sater said he would only answer questions in writing because the media has focused on his conviction in a stock fraud scheme rather than his extensive work as a U.S. intelligence asset who provided the government with valuable information about terrorists and mobsters. In an email to Yahoo News, Sater said that he and Cohen “first met as teenagers.”

The $130,000 payment to the porn star, Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, was made by Cohen in October 2016, just weeks before the presidential election. The payment was part of a confidentiality agreement that prevented Daniels from discussing an affair she claims to have had with Trump in 2006. After the Wall Street Journal revealed the payment in January, a watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the transaction constituted an undeclared campaign contribution to Trump, which would be a violation of campaign finance laws. In statements to the media and the commission, Cohen said the money had come from his own pocket. He described the payment as “a private transaction” that was “not a campaign contribution.”

In February, Cohen told Yahoo News that he had paid Daniels even though her claim about the affair with Trump was false.

“Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean that it can’t cause you harm or damage,” Cohen said. “I will always protect Mr. Trump.”

Trump has denied being aware of the payment and referred questions about it to Cohen.

Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, is interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CBS News’ <em>60 Minutes</em> in early March 2018. (Photo: CBSNews/60 Minutes/Handout via Reuters)
Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, is interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CBS News’ 60 Minutes in early March 2018. (Photo: CBSNews/60 Minutes/Handout via Reuters)

Daniels has filed a suit against Cohen and Trump arguing that the nondisclosure agreement she signed in conjunction with the payment is invalid because it was not signed by Trump. She has also separately filed a defamation suit against Cohen arguing that his denial of the affair falsely painted her as a liar.

Former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal has also claimed that she had an affair with Trump in 2006. American Media, Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, signed a six-figure contract with McDougal that she has described as an effort to bury her story. Cohen and Trump are close with AMI chairman and CEO David Pecker, and the special counsel’s prosecutors have probed whether Cohen also was involved in McDougal’s tabloid deal.

Questions about Cohen’s family and his dealings with the Kremlin first burst into the spotlight in January 2017, when BuzzFeed published an unconfirmed dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was paid by Democrats and Republicans to conduct opposition research on Trump during the 2016 election. The dossier, which contained some errors, said that Cohen played an instrumental role in an ongoing exchange of information between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. Among other things, the document alleged that Cohen met with “Kremlin representatives” in Prague in August 2016. The dossier described Cohen’s wife as being “of Russian descent” and suggested that his father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, was a “a leading property developer in Moscow.”

Cohen strongly denied the various allegations in the dossier in a January 2017 interview with Yahoo News, where he noted that his wife is Ukrainian rather than Russian.

“I have no Russian Kremlin connections. My father-in-law is not a real estate developer friend of Putin’s in Russia. I don’t even think my father-in-law ever has been to Russia,” Cohen said of Shusterman.

Shusterman would not discuss the allegations in the dossier when Yahoo News called him on Wednesday.

“I don’t want to talk about it. Goodbye,” Shusterman said before hanging up.

Cohen brought up another one of his Ukrainian relatives, his brother’s father-in-law, Alex Oronov, in the interview where he denied the accusations in the dossier. As he claimed that he had never traveled to Russia, Cohen suggested his only visits to the region were two trips to Ukraine in “either 2003 or 2004,” because his “brother’s father-in-law lives in Kiev.” That was around the time the Cohen brothers were involved in the ethanol businesses with Oronov.

“I went to Kiev. That’s the extent of it. I’ve never been to Russia,” Cohen said.

Donald Trump, Tevfik Arif and Felix Sater attend the Trump SoHo Launch Party on Sept. 19, 2007, in New York. (Photo: Mark Von Holden/WireImage)
Donald Trump, Tevfik Arif and Felix Sater attend the Trump SoHo Launch Party on Sept. 19, 2007, in New York. (Photo: Mark Von Holden/WireImage)

On Jan. 19, 2017, the day before Trump took office, Cohen announced that he would be resigning from the Trump Organization and would become the president’s personal attorney.

“I’m not a government official. I’m not taking a government salary,” Cohen said. “I’m just going to continue technically in the role that I play for Mr. Trump as president of the Trump Organization. I’m just going to be doing it as Donald Trump as president of the United States.”

In his new role, Cohen was involved in another bit of intrigue with links to Sater and Oronov. In February 2017, the New York Times reported that Cohen delivered Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia that would have enabled the president to lift sanctions on Moscow. The proposal was crafted by Andrii Artemenko, a Ukrainian politician who met with Sater and Cohen shortly after Trump took office.

In a March 2017 Facebook post, Artemenko said that Oronov, Cohen’s brother’s father-in-law, introduced him to Cohen. Cohen disputed Artemenko’s claim and said that Sater had arranged the meeting about the peace plan. In his email to Yahoo News, Sater backed up Cohen’s version of events.

“Artemenko approached me,” Sater wrote of the peace plan. “I gave it to Michael to pass to the administration. I had been dealing with him on the Trump Moscow deal and just naturally followed up with him.”

Flynn resigned as Trump’s national security adviser amid a scandal over his own dealings with Russian officials days after Cohen delivered him the peace plan. Sater said that he and Cohen did not present the proposal to anyone else in the White House after Flynn’s departure.

Yahoo News also asked Sater if the FBI has questioned him about Cohen or requested any documents related to the president’s personal attorney.

“No comment,” Sater wrote.

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