Lawyer Who Bested Roy Cohn Tapped for Big Gig in SDNY

MANHATTAN (CN) — A few years after he defended the burgeoning Trump real estate empire against claims of housing discrimination, the future president’s oft-described mentor Roy Cohn fought to overturn the convictions of two Mafia clients.

Roy Cohn

Even with Cohn in their corner, however, Joseph Gambino, the cousin of “boss of all bosses” Carlo Bambino, and his right-hand man Carlo Conti, failed to secure a reversal from the Second Circuit.

“These findings of the experienced trial judge cannot lightly be set aside,” a unanimous three-judge panel ruled in 1977. “Nor do we see any reason for so doing.” 

The case was an early success for rookie prosecutor Audrey Strauss, a graduate of Columbia Law School who edited appellate briefs in her new job at the Southern District of New York.

Strauss would go on to field more than 20 other cases before she was promoted in 1983 to the chief of appeals in the Criminal Division and chief of the Securities and Commodities Fraud Unit.

On Friday, Strauss returned to the Southern District to serve as second-in-command to U.S. Attorney George Berman, succeeding the prosecutor who secured the conviction of disgraced former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen.

In a statement, Berman said that his outgoing deputy decided to spend more time with his family.

“Rob Khuzami is an extraordinary and brilliant lawyer who has upheld the ideals of integrity and professionalism that characterize the work of this office,” Berman said of his departing No. 2. 

“There can be no higher praise,” he added.

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

With rumors about the Russia probe dominating Washington — U.S. Attorney General William Barr just received a confidential copy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report this afternoon — Khuzami’s sudden exit fueled anxiety about the future of his docket.

Berman recused himself for undisclosed reasons from the Cohen case, which reportedly spun off other investigations into possible campaign-finance violations and illegal fundraising for Trump’s inauguration.

Mimi Rocah, a former Southern District of New York prosecutor, called those fears understandable but unfounded.

“I think people will want to read into this,” Rocah said in an interview. “It isn’t uncommon for people to come and take executive positions for a few years and then return to other things.”

Finding the reasons for Khuzami’s departure credible, Rocah emphasized that a team of agents, investigators and assistant prosecutors build such cases.

“No one person at any level makes or breaks a case,” she added.

Long before the Cohen case, Khuzami’s appointment inspired a similar controversy over his lengthy work as general counsel for Trump’s lender of choice: Deutsche Bank.

That experience did not prevent Khuzami’s team from convicting Cohen of what a federal judge described as a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct” and implicating Trump in directing the illegal hush-money payments to Michael Cohen.

Observers scouring the resume of Khuzami’s replacement also might find plenty of grist for conflicting narratives.

In 1986, following her tenure as a prosecutor, Strauss served as a partner for Mudge Rose Guthrie & Alexander, a firm that The New York Times described as the legal launching pad for Richard Nixon. 

Roger Stone, a confidant of President Donald Trump, leaves the federal courthouse following a Jan. 25, 2019, hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Stone was arrested in the special counsel’s Russia investigation and was charged with lying to Congress and obstructing the probe. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Trump’s indicted “dirty trickster” Roger Stone famously has a tattoo of the 37th president on his back, and of course, Nixon’s impeachment proceedings lurk in the background of the Russia probe, its shadow dividing a hesitant Democratic Party.

Strauss’ experiences as a mob prosecutor has the potential to create the opposite mythology. Trump’s organized crime associations have loomed in the periphery of multiple special counsel cases.

Felix Sater, who was Cohen’s intermediary in the aborted plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and will testify before Congress next week, was convicted in a pump-and-dump fraud scheme orchestrated by the Russian mafia before agreeing to work for the U.S. government.

The indictment of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, showed him using the Cyprus-based Lucicle Consultants Ltd. to wire millions of dollars into the United States.

The Daily Beast noted that same shell company received millions from an associate of Semion Mogilevich, frequently described as the “most dangerous mobster in the world.” 

At the nexus of the political and criminal underworlds stood Trump’s former attorney, Roy Cohn, the henchman for the anti-communist witch hunts of late Senator Joseph McCarthy and a prolific defender of gangsters.

When the Department of Justice accused Trump of discriminating against black tenants in 1973, Cohn was quoted advising the young developer: “Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court.” 

Robert Khuzami, the outgoing second-in-command to U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in New York, formerly served as director of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1986, Cohn defended Genovese underboss Tony Salerno, Bonnano boss Carmine Galante and Gambino “Dapper Don” John Gotti.

Strauss is not the only prosecutor whose appointment today will provide fodder for Russia probe-watchers. Rising to the post of Berman’s chief counsel is Craig Stewart, whose stint as a prosecutor also featured organized crime experience. Stewart later became a partner at Arnold & Porter, where he helped the white-shoe firm’s clients comport with foreign bribery laws.

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