FBI Suspected Cohen as Foreign Agent Nearly a Year Before Raids

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, returns to Capitol Hill for a fourth day of testimony as Democrats pursue a flurry of investigations into Trump’s White House, businesses and presidential campaign, in Washington on March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

MANHATTAN (CN) — The FBI suspected that Michael Cohen secretly worked on behalf of a foreign government for nearly a year before agents raided his home and office, according to a Tuesday avalanche of search-warrant materials into the former personal attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump.

Totaling hundreds of pages, the heavily redacted search warrants offer new details about the federal inquiry of Cohen’s business dealings and the April 2018 raids of his Manhattan home and office.

The papers show that federal agents had been investigating Cohen since July 2017 — far longer than had previously been known.

A search warrant application for Cohen’s Gmail, iCloud and other accounts indicates the FBI had probable cause to justify the raid on the grounds of suspected bank fraud, money laundering, acting as an unregistered foreign agent and violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The night before the release of the search warrant materials, Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis said in a statement that transparency over the documents “only furthers his interest in continuing to cooperate and providing information and the truth about Donald Trump and the Trump Organization to law enforcement and Congress.”

The search warrant materials also reference Cohen’s ties to Ukrainian-born Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

In addition to representing Cohen, Davis served as co-counsel for another Ukrainian oligarch: Dmytro Firtash, whom Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani recently accused of being a close associate of Russian mobster Semion Mogilevich. 

In response to that remark, Davis told The Hill that Firtash, who was indicted under the Obama administration for his role in an international titanium scheme, is an “innocent man.”

The details on Cohen’s foreign ties appear in a section detailing his transactions through Essential Consultants, a Delaware LLC best known as the shell company for hush payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

Attorney Michael Avenatti shed light on the shell company in a May 2018 report that itemized $4.4 million in “suspicious” transactions. Avenatti claimed at the time that total included roughly $500,000 in payments received from Vekselberg. 

Broadly corroborating Avenatti’s old allegations, the unsealed search warrant materials state that Cohen formed the shell company on Oct. 26, 2016 — just weeks before the presidential election.

Cohen claimed Essential Consultants was a real estate company, but the FBI characterized it as, at least in part, a conduit for foreign cash.

“Specifically, the account was not intended to receive – and does not appear to have received – money in connection to real estate consulting work; in addition, the account has received substantial payments from foreign sources,” the FBI agent wrote.

The FBI claims that Vekselberg-linked payments started flowing in shortly after Trump’s inauguration.

“Beginning on or about January 31, 2017, Cohen began receiving monthly payments of $83,333 into the Essential Consultants Account from an entity called Columbus Nova LLC,” the FBI affidavit states.

In an affidavit, the FBI described Columbus Nova as an investment management firm controlled by the Renova Group, an industrial holding company owned by Vekselberg. Columbus Nova disputed that claim in a statement, insisting that they “are not now, nor have ever been, owned by any foreign entity or person.”

“From January 2017 to August 2017, the Essential Consultants account received seven payments totaling $583,332.98 from Columbus Nova LLC,” the affidavit states.

The FBI’s accounting largely tracks the payments Avenatti exposed last year, including those by AT&T, Novartis and Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd.

Agents believe loans to Cohen’s taxi-medallion business put him $22 million in debt before he started peddling access to the White House.

“Cohen and his wife own multiple LLCs that collectively own 32 taxi medallions (each LLC owns two medallions),” one affidavit states.

With the ride-sharing industry wreaking havoc on traditional taxis, Cohen tried to get his head above water on Oct. 1, 2016 — which the FBI calls “the approximate date of when Cohen’s efforts to sell the medallions and the associated debt began.”

It was also a little more than a month before the 2016 presidential elections.

Beyond opening a window into the early stages of Cohen’s investigation, the FBI’s search-warrant materials also describe the inner workings of the raid that enraged the Trump White House.

The documents also reveal that FBI agents had been pouring through Cohen’s emails since July 2017 – ironically using a law signed by Trump, the CLOUD Act, to access the messages, as first reported by CNN.

In a February 2018 search warrant application, an FBI agent describes a First Republic bank account Cohen set up one month before the 2016 presidential elections under the name of the shell company Essential Consultants LLC.

In his warrant application, the FBI agent describes using a stingray device – also known as a “triggerfish” – to locate which suite inside Manhattan’s Loews Regency Hotel held the cellphones sought by the bureau.

The FBI’s raid on Cohen’s home, hotel and office yielded more than 4 million electronic and paper files in the searches, more than a dozen mobile devices and iPads, 20 external hard drives, flash drives, and laptops.

Rather than one document, eight separate applications, affidavits and search warrants totaling hundreds of pages were used to support the raids and email acquisitions.

U.S. District Judge William Pauley III ordered their release last month in response to an open-records request by the New York Times and other outlets.

“These applications implicate the familiar tension between public access to judicial records and the integrity of law enforcement investigations —interests arguably magnified by the intense scrutiny of Cohen’s criminal case by the media, the general public, and even the president of the United States,” Pauley wrote on Feb. 7.

The New York Times initiated the open-records request in October, months before Judge Pauley sentenced Cohen to three years in prison for what he called a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.”

“Simply put, the public interest in knowing the underlying bases for the investigation could not be higher,” Times attorney David McCraw wrote at the time.

The Associated Press, New York Daily News, New York Post, Dow Jones, Newsday, ABC, CBS and CNN later joined the proceedings, sparking the government to warn that production of the warrants could compromise an ongoing grand jury investigation.

Pauley allowed the government to redact information about ongoing investigations into Cohen’s campaign-finance crimes, which Cohen said implicate the president. Several pages related to the “Illegal Campaign Contribution Scheme” remain hidden under black lines.

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