Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
If you’ve seen video or images of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, they’ve probably been set in locations that exude power and importance: Cohen berating a CNN anchor in a TV studio, for example, or striding across the sleek marbled interior of Trump Tower, or more recently, smoking cigars in front of Cohen’s temporary residence, the Loews Regency Hotel on Manhattan’s Park Avenue.
But to understand how Michael Cohen arrived in those precincts, you need to venture across New York City’s East River. There, in a Queens warehouse district in the shadows of an elevated No. 7 subway line, is a taxi garage that used to house his law practice. The office area in the front is painted a garish taxicab-yellow, with posters of hockey players on the wall and a framed photo of the late Hasidic rabbi Menachem Schneerson. Cohen practiced law there and invested in the once-lucrative medallions that grant New York cabs the right to operate.
Or you could drive 45 minutes deep into Brooklyn, near where Gravesend turns into Brighton Beach. There, in a desolate stretch near a shuttered podiatrist’s office, you’d find a medical office. According to previously unexamined records, Cohen incorporated a business there in 2002 that was involved in large quantities of medical claims. Separately, he represented more than 100 plaintiffs who claimed they were injured in auto collisions.
At the same time, in Brooklyn and Long Island, New York prosecutors were investigating what Fortune magazine called possibly “the largest organized insurance-fraud ring in U.S. history.” That fraud resulted in hundreds of criminal prosecutions for staging car accidents to collect insurance payments. Cohen was not implicated in the fraud.
A distinctive pattern emerged early in Cohen’s career, according to an examination by WNYC and ProPublica for the “Trump, Inc.” podcast: Many of the people who crossed paths with Cohen when he worked in Queens and Brooklyn were disciplined, disbarred, accused or convicted of crimes.
Cohen, 51, has always emerged unscathed — until now. Last week, his Rockefeller Center office was raided by federal agents, as were his home, hotel room, safety deposit box and two cellphones. Cohen is under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. According to court papers, investigators are examining whether he committed fraud and showed a “lack of truthfulness.”
He and his attorneys did not respond to a lengthy set of questions emailed to them. Cohen’s lawyers have stated that he has done nothing improper.
Cohen has attained national attention as the man who paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep her alleged affair with Trump secret. He also negotiated a $1.6 million settlement with a woman impregnated by Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy. (Cohen’s attorney told a judge on Monday that his only three legal clients over the past 15 months were Trump, Broidy and talk-show host Sean Hannity.)
Cohen has for decades had close personal and professional relationships with many citizens of the former Soviet Union. He ended up as point men on Trump’s deals there and also turned up in the notorious Russia “dossier.” He has routinely been described as an indispensable man to Donald Trump.
One indicator of that, according to The New York Times: President Trump is more agitated by what those New York prosecutors may find in Cohen’s files than he is by the wide-ranging investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. Cohen, it seems, may hold some crucial secrets. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is the path he took to get to that point.
Michael Cohen grew up in the Five Towns area of Long Island, New York, a heavily Jewish enclave. His father was a surgeon, according to media reports, and Cohen enjoyed a top-tier education, graduating from the private Lawrence Woodmere Academy, then moving on to American University.
From there, it seems, Cohen’s educational trajectory turned in a different direction. He attended the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Michigan, which, InsideHigherEd.com once wrote, “is known for admitting students other law schools would not touch.”
In 1992, after law school, he returned to his home region and landed a job working for a personal injury attorney named Melvyn Estrin, who had an office on lower Broadway in Manhattan.
Estrin was the first in a series of colleagues who would run afoul of authorities. Within three years of Cohen’s arrival, Estrin was charged with bribing insurance adjusters to inflate damage estimates and expedite claims. He later pleaded guilty. Cohen was never implicated in any of the misdeeds. Estrin did not respond to a request for comment. He is still practicing law.
Cohen continued to use Estrin’s address on legal filings as late as 1999, but he added several new addresses during this period, including 22-05 43rd Ave., in Long Island City, Queens — the taxi garage. It was the headquarters of the New York branch of the empire of Simon Garber, a Soviet emigre who also has had cab companies in Chicago and Moscow. Charismatic and silver-haired, Garber released kitschy TV-style advertisements, in Russian, for his company.
Over the years, Garber has been convicted of assault in New York, arrested for battery in Miami and pleaded guilty in New Jersey to charges of criminal mischief involving him breaking into three neighbors’ homes, shattering glass doors, smearing blood all over and taking a shower. In Chicago, his taxi fleet included wrecked vehicles with illegally laundered titles.
Garber did not respond to a request for comment. (Two other attorneys had offices inside Garber’s offices in the early 2000s. One was forced to resign from the bar after he was accused of not turning money over to a client. The other was disbarred, in part for trying to steal money from the first lawyer.)
In 1994 Cohen married Laura Shusterman, who was born in the Soviet Union. Her father, also a taxi entrepreneur, pleaded guilty to a felony, conspiracy to defraud the IRS, the year before.
By the late 1990s, records show, Cohen had begun acquiring taxi medallions, licenses required by the City of New York to operate a yellow cab. The number of medallions has been strictly controlled for decades. Before the advent of services like Uber, they were particularly valuable, with their price peaking at over $1 million in 2014.
Cohen co-owned some of the medallions with his wife, and indeed, his family and business relationships sometimes overlapped. Filings show his father-in-law once made a loan to Garber. And in 2001, Cohen borrowed money for one of his taxi companies, Golden Child Cab Corp., from one of the men convicted with Cohen’s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, in the fraud against the IRS.
Starting around 2000, Cohen was involved in scores of car insurance lawsuits, often on behalf of plaintiffs who claimed to have been injured in auto collisions and were seeking judgments to cover purported medical expenses.
At this time, a wave of staged auto accidents, involving immigrants from the former Soviet Union who claimed to have been hurt, had led prosecutors to open a massive investigation. They dubbed it Operation Boris, an acronym for Big Organized Russian Insurance Scam. The prosecutorial push resulted in hundreds of convictions.
Cohen also drew up incorporation papers for at least three medical practices and three medical billing companies. One company Cohen registered in 2002, Avex Medical Care PRC, sued insurance companies nearly 300 times. The plaintiffs lawyer in almost all of these cases was David Katz, who was disbarred later for professional misconduct.
The doctor who owned Avex was charged in 2003 with criminal insurance fraud connected with another medical business; the charge was dismissed. He’s now practicing medicine in New Jersey.
Dr. Zhanna Kanevsky, the principal of Life Quality Medical, a clinic business that Cohen incorporated in 2002, surrendered her medical license after pleading guilty to writing phony prescriptions for 100,000 oxycodone and other pills.
Once again, Cohen was never charged.
In the early 2000s, Trump and Cohen became connected, fittingly, through real estate. Cohen started to transfer the wealth he’d gained from taxi medallions and insurance lawsuits to apartments in Trump buildings. Along with his parents, his in-laws, and Simon Garber, Cohen acquired eight units in Trump Palace, Trump Park Avenue, and Trump World Plaza. The man who operated out of a Queens taxi garage now owned apartments alongside the likes of Sophia Loren and Harrison Ford.
Cohen also began to show political ambitions. In 2003, he ran for City Council on Manhattan’s Upper East Side as a Republican. Even people close to his campaign weren’t sure why he ran.
His own campaign biography provided few answers — or rather, disparate ones. He claimed at the time to own 200 taxi medallions, to be a member of the Friars Club, an avid stamp collector, and a member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Inspector General advisory board.
Cohen lost the City Council race, but his donor list provides a snapshot of his network. He received contributions from his father, his father-in-law, and Bruce Winston, a son of the jeweler Harry Winston. A New York Republican with knowledge of Cohen’s 2003 campaign said Cohen told him then that he was Harry Winston’s in-house counsel at the time. The company says Cohen was never an employee.
Court papers show Cohen was one of the lawyers who helped Bruce Winston, and his daughter, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, in a legal action challenging Deutsche Bank’s conduct as trustee of Harry Winston’s estate. Their petition failed. (For her part, Wolkoff, a friend of Melania Trump’s, later became the highest-paid contractor for Donald Trump’s inauguration, taking in an eye-popping $26 million, and sparking a backlash.)
It’s unclear when Cohen and Trump first met, but the two were publicly linked in February 2007. The New York Post published an article then about an attorney who was purchasing large numbers of apartments in Trump buildings. “Trump properties are solid investments,” Cohen told the Post. Trump returned the compliment, declaring Cohen to be a wise investor. “Michael Cohen has a great insight into the real-estate market,” he told the Post. “He has invested in my buildings because he likes to make money — and he does.”
Three months later, Cohen became an executive vice president at the Trump Organization, with the same job title as Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump.
Cohen was never a traditional in-house lawyer for Trump. He has been described as both a “fixer” and a “dealmaker” — and it seems he embraced both roles. “He did jobs for Donald that no one else would do,” said one person who worked with Cohen, “especially not a lawyer. He did a lot of these jobs.”
Still, even after Cohen had joined the Trump Organization, he harbored personal political dreams. In 2010, Cohen mounted a second unsuccessful campaign, this time for the New York state Senate. Among his donors in that race were shipping magnate Oleg Mitnik and tobacco tycoon and New York real estate man Howard Lorber, one of Donald Trump’s closest friends.
Cohen continued to expand his role within the Trump universe. It had become simultaneously global, national and highly local. The Trump Organization’s business model had shifted, from building high-end Manhattan properties to scoping for international licensing deals, particularly in the former Soviet Union. Cohen, along with Trump’s adult children, headed up this effort.
At a Trump Tower press conference in early 2011, Cohen took the public stage as an international dealmaker. “Seven months ago, at the request of a dear friend of mine from Georgia, Giorgi Rtskhiladze, I traveled to the Republic of Georgia to explore several real estate opportunities on behalf of Mr. Trump,” Cohen said in his unmistakable Long Island accent. He then introduced Trump and the then-president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili.
The ostensible purpose of the press conference was to talk up a planned tower in the city of Batumi, on the Black Sea coast. But most of the questions centered on Donald Trump’s possible run for president.
Months earlier, Michael Cohen had helped set up a website called shouldtrumprun.com with the Long Island law firm Gerstman Schwartz & Malito. (David Schwartz is a longtime Cohen friend and attorney who made several television appearances on Cohen’s behalf when the Stormy Daniels news broke.) Cohen also traveled to Iowa to explore the political terrain.
Shouldtrumprun.com was billed as independent of Trump; otherwise Trump would have had to file papers with the Federal Election Commission on his own behalf. At the press conference, Trump was peppered with political questions. “Could you comment on the kind of feedback or what you took from the feedback from Mr. Cohen’s Iowa trip,” one reporter asked. “You could ask Mr. Cohen. You can speak to him,” Trump replied.
But she pressed. “Are you encouraged by anything that you saw or read out of that? Trump couldn’t resist. “Well,” he said, “I mean the response has been amazing, actually.”
Another response: A complaint was filed with the Federal Election Commission, alleging Trump had accepted “excessive or impermissible contributions from the Trump Organization, LLC” because shouldtrumprun.com was set up by an employee: Michael Cohen. Trump and Cohen were cleared of wrongdoing. One of the two commissioners who signed off on the ruling was Donald McGahn. McGahn later became Trump’s White House counsel.
There’s another piece of public work that Cohen was involved in that further shows the close links among Trump, Cohen, and the attorney David Schwartz. During the same time period of the Georgia deal and shouldtrumprun.com, Schwartz and Cohen were both working on a project called Trump on the Ocean, which aimed to construct a massive catering hall in the popular Jones Beach State Park on Long Island.
Trump was so keen on this project that, unusually even for him, he called four governors and a state comptroller to lobby for it, according to former state officials. In at least one of the calls, he cited his generous donations as a reason to get the clearances he needed to move forward.
Trump put Cohen in charge of the negotiations. But some state officials balked at what they saw as an attempt to commercialize a state park, and Trump’s insistence that the state override its fire code so he could build a kitchen in the basement.
The lobbying was contentious, said Judith Enck, the top environmental advisr for Govs. Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson (and later the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency for the New York region), who was involved in the negotiations. “That was not a typical discussion with a business that was trying to do business with the state of New York. It was aggressive,” Enck said. “There were efforts to go around me to get a better outcome in the discussion … I recall it as you know one of the most unpleasant experiences I had in the governor’s office.”
Misery, perhaps, for a government official — but triumph for Trump, Cohen and Schwartz. They got permission to begin construction. “GREAT JOB!” Trump wrote in a note to Schwartz. “I will hire your firm again!”
Alas, it was all for naught in the end. Months later, the tail of Superstorm Sandy inundated Jones Beach and Trump walked away from the project.
Three years later, when Trump made a run for the White House, Cohen continued to serve both as promoter and dealmaker. He frequently appeared on TV as a Trump surrogate, though he had no official campaign position. In one interview in the summer of 2016, Cohen refused to acknowledge that polls strongly favored Hillary Clinton. He badgered CNN anchor Brianna Keilar when she referred to Trump’s then-dismal poll numbers. “Says who?” Cohen shot back. “What polls?” The anchor, seemingly mystified, answered, “All of them?” The clip went viral.
Cohen’s truculent tendencies were also on display a year before that interview when he threatened Daily Beast reporter Tim Mak. Mak had resurfaced an old accusation made by Donald Trump’s first wife, Ivana, during their divorce proceedings, that Trump had raped her. (She later withdrew the allegation.) “I’m warning you,” Mak says Cohen told him, “tread very fucking lightly because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.”
Behind the scenes, Cohen was still attempting to make deals for Trump in the former Soviet Union. Cohen drafted a letter of intent with a Moscow investment company to build Trump World Tower Moscow.
Cohen’s partner in the deal was Felix Sater, a Trump associate who had been convicted of assault and securities fraud and had widely reported connections to the Russian mob. “Let’s make this happen and build a Trump Moscow,” Sater wrote in an email to Cohen. “And possibly fix relations between the countries by showing everyone commerce and business are much better and more practical than politics.”
In another email, Sater wrote, “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.” In a statement issued last summer, Cohen called this “puffery” and said Sater was prone to colorful language and salesmanship.
Cohen’s activities drew the attention of Christopher Steele, a former British spy who was assembling raw intelligence on the Trump campaign for a private client (ultimately paid for by the Clinton campaign). The resulting collection of documents has become known as “the dossier.”
Steele’s memo included the assertion that Cohen met with Russian contacts in Prague after damaging news emerged about Trump’s former campaign manager and an aide. “The overall objective had been ‘sweep it all under the carpet and make sure no connection could be fully established or proven,’” Steele wrote in a memo dated Oct. 19, 2016.
In statements and court documents, Cohen has vociferously denied ever visiting Prague, even dispensing photos of his passport, with no Czech stamps visible, as putative proof. Cohen has filed two defamation lawsuits over the release of the dossier. But now McClatchy has reported that special counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that Cohen was in Prague in late summer 2016. (And the photographic “proof” Cohen offered may turn out to be moot, according to the McClatchy article, since he reportedly entered the Czech Republic from Germany, which would not have required him to pass through immigration or customs.)
One thing that Cohen does not dispute: In October 2016, he was involved in fixing another problem, this time by paying $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels. Cohen asserts he did this on his own, with money he obtained from a home equity line of credit.
When FBI agents searched Cohen’s offices on April 9, 2018, they were seeking evidence relating to the Stormy Daniels payment. They were also, according to the Washington Post, sifting through business records relating to Cohen’s taxi medallions. There may still be answers to be found in Queens.
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