Russian oligarch, recently sanctioned, sent money to Trump's personal attorney, lawyer claims
AT&T, which has a proposed merger before the court, confirms payment to Trump attorney Cohen
Stormy Daniels's lawyer said Tuesday he has information showing that Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney, received $500,000 US from a company associated with a Russian billionaire within months of paying hush money to Daniels, a porn star who claims she had an affair with Trump.
Lawyer Michael Avenatti also said hundreds of thousands of dollars streamed into Cohen's account from companies, including pharmaceutical giant Novartis, AT&T and Korea Aerospace, with U.S. government business interests. AT&T confirmed its connection Tuesday evening.
Avenatti did not reveal the source of his information or release documentation. But in a seven-page memo, Avenatti detailed what he said were wire transfers going into and out of the account Cohen used to pay Daniels $130,000 in October 2016 to stay silent about her alleged affair with the soon-to-be president. Trump denies having an affair with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
Financial documents reviewed Tuesday by The Associated Press appeared to back up Avenatti's report.
The memo, containing highly specific dates and amounts, stated that Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire, and his cousin "routed" eight payments totalling approximately $500,000 to Cohen's company, Essential Consultants, between January and August 2017. The reason for the payment was not known.
Speculating without offering proof, the Avenatti memo said, "It appears these funds may have replenished the account following the payment to Ms. Clifford."
Avenatti's memo said the deposits into the account controlled by Cohen were made by Columbus Nova, an American investment company affiliated with the Renova Group, which is controlled by Vekselberg.
Columbus Nova's attorney Richard Owens stressed in a statement that the company is "solely owned and controlled by Americans" and said that, after Trump's inauguration, the firm hired Cohen 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.
Owens said any suggestion that Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Cohen was false. "Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else, other than Columbus Nova's owners, were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement," he said.
Cohen and his attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Cohen is currently under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, but hasn't been charged.
At the time of the payments, there was an active FBI counterintelligence investigation — which special counsel Robert Mueller took over last May — into Russian election interference and any possible co-ordination 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.
Offering confirmation for more of the payments, 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 totalling $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." Cohen is not a registered lobbyist, according to public records.
Could contravene lobbying laws
Such a confidential relationship would not violate federal lobbying laws if Cohen did not seek to influence Trump on the companies' behalf. But hiring the president's personal attorney for advice on how to woo Trump would be highly unusual, especially given that Cohen was never formally involved in the campaign or Trump's administration.
Making the arrangement even stranger, the blue-chip companies' payments to Cohen were routed to Essential Consultants LLC — the same company Cohen used to buy Stormy Daniels's silence about her alleged affair with the President.
Trump's Justice Department has sued to block AT&T from an $85 billion merger with Time Warner, saying it would hurt competition and consumers would have to pay more to watch their favourite shows.
Korea Aerospace, which is alleged to have paid Cohen $150,000 in November 2017, confirmed it paid Cohen's company for a business deal.
A company spokesman in Seoul, who declined to be named citing office rules, said Korea Aerospace Industries had a contract with Essential Consultants, Michael Cohen's company, for legal advice on accounting standards. The payment was made under a "legal" deal between the two, said the spokesperson, who refused to answer questions about the size or dates of any payments.
A spokesman for Novartis, a multinational pharmaceutical company, could not confirm or deny the payment, but said any agreements with Essential Consultants were entered before the company's current CEO took over in February of this year and have since expired.
The memo alleges the company paid Cohen $399,920 in late 2017 and early 2018 in four payments — each amounting to $99,980.
Trump had dinner with Novartis's soon-to-be CEO Vasant Narasimhan, along with other European executives, at the World Economic Forum in Davos shortly after the date of the final payment.
Larry Noble, senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, said there's nothing technically wrong with companies like Novartis and AT&T hiring people like Cohen to provide insight into the president's thinking. But he said the arrangement described by Avenatti "certainly doesn't look good."
"Why would you go to the president's private fixer?" he asked. "He's not known for policy and he's not in the administration. You're going to someone who can get you access and tell you about the person of the president. That's unusual."