“Accounting advice” feels like an answer straight out of Slush Fund Mad Libs.
Obviously, if you’re going to spend six figures for accounting tips, instead of hiring a top U.S. tax lawyer you should shovel it at a guy who’s best known for badly drafted hush-money agreements involving porn stars.
South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd (KAI) said on Wednesday it had paid $150,000 for consulting services on accounting matters to a firm set up by U.S. President Donald Trump’s private lawyer Michael Cohen.
The arrangement came as the company, backed by state-owned Export-Import Bank of Korea, is competing to sell trainer jets to the U.S. Air Force in an auction that could be worth up to $16 billion…
A KAI spokesman said it signed a contract with Essential last year for “legal consulting concerning accounting standards on production costs”, and upon the expiration of the contract it made the payment in November.
Cohen’s main practice (as far as we know) is real estate. According to the document Michael Avenatti released yesterday, the details of which have been confirmed by the NYT, Cohen told the bank when opening the account he used to pay Stormy Daniels that it would be used mainly for smallish transactions related to real-estate consulting. How did KAI come to think of him as a source of “accounting” advice, and how did its money end up there?
They’re not the only company struggling to explain their payments to Cohen today. Novartis, the Swiss pharma company that paid nearly 10 times as much to Cohen as KAI did, also had a creative accounting of their business with him. He’s not only a hush-money arranger, real-estate lawyer, and “accounting” expert, he’s a valuable source of health-care consulting too:
Novartis said it signed a one-year contract with Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants, for $100,000 per month in February 2017, shortly after Trump was inaugurated as president.
Novartis said it believed Cohen “could advise the company as to how the Trump administration might approach certain U.S. health-care policy matters, including the Affordable Care Act.”
But just a month after signing the deal, Novartis executives had their first meeting with Cohen, and afterward “determined that Michael Cohen and Essentials Consultants would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated.”
Oddly enough, despite Cohen not providing the “services” they needed by their own admission, Novartis kept paying him. They fulfilled the contract and sent $1.2 million his way, supposedly because their contract with Cohen only allowed them to terminate the deal for cause. Which is preposterous, notes attorney Ken White. As the Stormy debacle illustrates, Cohen may not know how to draft an airtight contract to his advantage but Novartis’s legal team surely does:
I mean, if GiagantoAmoralCorp enters into a contract with the Governor's idiot brother-in-law Wayne hiring him as a neuroscience consultant, and Wayne's lips get tired when he reads too much, and the retainer is nonrefundable, IT'S NOT BECAUSE GIGANTO HAS BAD LAWYERS.
— IncitementToResurrectionHat (@Popehat) May 9, 2018
Robert Mueller found the Novartis deal sufficiently suspicious to interview the company about it — months ago, in fact. He sat down with them in November of last year. Sometime thereafter Mueller referred the evidence he had on Cohen to the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, apparently believing that there was probable cause of a crime but reasoning that it was too far removed from the basics of Russiagate to allow him to pursue it himself. Was the Novartis deal the impetus for the U.S. Attorney’s interest in Cohen?
Read Jazz’s post this morning for some useful cautions on the Cohen bank account saga. A good question: If Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian oligarch whose U.S. company paid Cohen $500,000, ended up on a U.S. sanctions list anyway, how could his payment to Cohen really have been about buying influence? A lawyer at that company, in fact, claims that Vekselberg had nothing to do with the payment to Cohen. It remains bizarre that Cohen would have accepted cash from a company linked to a Putin crony after the Russiagate investigation had begun, but stupidity and corruption are two different (although not mutually exclusive) things.
Another good question is whether, even if the slush-fund suspicions are confirmed, any of this was illegal. The answer, as best I can tell, is that it depends. If Cohen was effectively acting as a lobbyist for some foreign entities, he’d presumably be guilty (a la Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn) of not registering. More seriously, in a worst-case scenario in which some of the money went into Trump’s pocket, there would be bribery implications. But even if it’s all legal, letting special interests buy influence with a major political figure via payments made for ostensibly legitimate reasons was a core knock on Hillary Clinton in 2016, both in the primary and in the general election. Remember the Clinton Foundation? Remember those strangely lucrative secret speeches to Wall Street banks? It may not be illegal to hand a fat envelope to someone who’s closely connected to a president for “consulting services” or “charity” or whatever, but it’s swampy as hell. It’s the dictionary definition of political swampiness. And so the question will inevitably arise: Did Trump know what Cohen was doing? And did he see any of the money himself?
One more point regarding Jazz’s post. He noted there an item at TPM speculating that Avenatti had somehow obtained Suspicious Activity Reports regarding Cohen’s bank transactions, which would explain the surprising amount of knowledge he seems to have about them even without discovery at trial. When I saw the mentions of SARs, a lightbulb went off. I remembered reading last month that Avenatti had formally requested the Treasury Department to release the SAR involving Cohen’s payment to Daniels. Two weeks ago he said this to Vanity Fair about the SAR:
“That is a critical document at this juncture of the case,” said Avenatti. If such a report existed it could very well describe a narrative of events in which monies were moved from bank account to bank account in an effort to cover up campaign payments to Trump’s alleged mistresses. “The importance of that document cannot be overstated,” he said.
As far as I’m aware, Treasury never did release the SAR. And yet here Avenatti was yesterday, publishing a dossier on Cohen that included details on all sorts of transactions into Cohen’s account, well beyond just the Stormy payment. In fact, last night on MSNBC he mentioned three SARs:
Michael Avenatti tells @TheLastWord that he knows there were three Suspicious Activity Reports filed by First Republican Bank with the Treasury Department relating to Michael Cohen's account, calls for the Treasury to release the reports: "The American people should demand it."
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) May 9, 2018
It sure sounds like Avenatti has these documents. How on earth did he get them?
Update: Well then. This would answer the question of how it came to be that money from companies as disparate as a Swiss pharmaceutical and a Korean aviation manufacturer ended up in Cohen’s Stormy Daniels bank account. It wasn’t that they were seeking him out, if you believe the Novartis employee who spoke to Stat. It was that he was seeking them out. If this story is accurate, this guy was apparently cold-calling major corporations and rattling his tin cup at them in exchange for some influence with the incoming president.
The curious relationship between one of the world’s biggest drug makers and President Trump’s personal lawyer began early last year when Michael Cohen, a longtime fixer for the president, reached out to Novartis’s then-chief executive officer Joe Jimenez, promising help gaining access to Trump and influential officials in the new administration, according to an employee inside Novartis familiar with the matter…
“He reached out to us,” the Novartis employee said, providing STAT with the company’s version of events as it scrambles to contain the fallout from being entangled in the investigations surrounding Trump and his inner circle, including Cohen. “With a new administration coming in, basically, all the traditional contacts disappeared and they were all new players. We were trying to find an inroad into the administration. Cohen promised access to not just Trump, but also the circle around him. It was almost as if we were hiring him as a lobbyist.”
“The employee could not explain why Novartis would have agreed to a deal with a lawyer with no background in health care and without deep Washington ties,” notes Stat, drily. Could it be because … they wanted direct access to the president, not a lawyer with a “background in health care”? Cohen could provide the former, in which case who cares about the latter?
Stat’s source claims that Novartis concluded after their first meeting with Cohen that it was a “slippery slope” to engage him, so they didn’t meet with him thereafter — but they kept paying him. Why? Not because, as stated above, their contract could only be terminated “for cause.” It was because, said the source, canceling might have pissed off the president. Once again: Did Trump see any of this money?
Update: I probably should have just rewritten this post in light of the updates that happened after I finished the main part, huh? Ah well. You get to see how the blog sausage is made.
The Treasury Department’s inspector general is investigating how Stormy Daniels’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, obtained confidential banking records concerning a company controlled by President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
The inspector general’s counsel, Rich Delmar, told The Hill that the office is looking into allegations that federally mandated reports filed about Cohen’s banking transactions were “improperly disseminated.”
News of the Treasury investigation, which is focused on the release of Suspicious Activity Reports filed by banks that hosted accounts for Cohen, was first reported Wednesday by The Washington Post.
Clearly Treasury also thinks Avenatti got the SARs somehow, presumably via a leak. I won’t pretend to know the law here but typically it’s the leaker, not the leakee(?), who faces legal jeopardy when confidential information gets loose. That’s why reporters don’t get in trouble but their sources do. That is to say, Avenatti may be under investigation here not because he did something illegal by receiving the SARs but because the IG thinks the person who gave him the SARs did. But if legal eagles want to correct me, please do.