Now, there could be an innocent explanation. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time that a president’s lawyer was under federal investigation and suddenly records documenting his dubious transactions mysteriously disappeared from an executive branch department
Wait, I’m being handed a bulletin. It says here … it would be the first time that had ever happened. Well then!
Ronan Farrow doesn’t specify whether the leaker he spoke to is the same guy who gave Michael Avenatti the information about Cohen’s financial records or if this is a second leaker who handed documentation of the same info to media outlets like the Times. Presumably it’s the same guy. Either way, prior suspicions about the nature of the documentation are confirmed. It is indeed a “Suspicious Activity Report,” which banks are required to file with the Treasury Department whenever they notice something happening in a bank account that doesn’t look quite right to them. Avenatti’s been crowing for months that SARs are what would ultimately blow the lid off Michael Cohen’s funny business. Coincidentally, despite it being highly illegal for the government to publish them, one ended up in his hands.
But here’s the wrinkle. According to Farrow’s source, there were three SARs for Michael Cohen filed by First Republic Bank dating back to last year. One, covering the period from September 2017 to January of this year, contains the info about Novartis, AT&T, and Korea Aerospace Industries that Avenatti revealed last week. (If you read these posts, you know all about it by now.) The other two, stretching from late 2016 to June 2017 and then from June 2017 to September 2017, reportedly include details involving another $3 million flowing into Cohen’s account. But somehow, some way, they’ve … disappeared from the database maintained by FINCEN, the Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit. They were there before, they’re not there now.
Which is, apparently, very, very unusual.
The official, who has spent a career in law enforcement, told me, “I have never seen something pulled off the system. . . . That system is a safeguard for the bank. It’s a stockpile of information. When something’s not there that should be, I immediately became concerned.” The official added, “That’s why I came forward.”
Seven former government officials and other experts familiar with the Treasury Department’s fincen database expressed varying levels of concern about the missing reports. Some speculated that FINCEN may have restricted access to the reports due to the sensitivity of their content, which they said would be nearly unprecedented. One called the possibility “explosive.” A record-retention policy on FINCEN’s Web site notes that false documents or those “deemed highly sensitive” and “requiring strict limitations on access” may be transferred out of its master file. Nevertheless, a former prosecutor who spent years working with the FINCEN database said that she knew of no mechanism for restricting access to SARs. She speculated that FINCEN may have taken the extraordinary step of restricting access “because of the highly sensitive nature of a potential investigation. It may be that someone reached out to FINCEN to ask to limit disclosure of certain SARs related to an investigation, whether it was the special counsel or the Southern District of New York.” (The special counsel, Robert Mueller, is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. The Southern District is investigating Cohen, and the F.B.I. raided his office and hotel room last month.)
That’s the best-case scenario for the White House. It was prosecutors who asked for Cohen’s SARs to be yanked, whether because they feared they would leak to the media (understandably!) or because they feared a Trump ally at Treasury might share the info with Trump or Cohen himself to clue him in on what the feds know and what they’re looking at. The worst-case scenario is that, er, this is egregious obstruction of justice by someone who surreptitiously deleted the SARs to try to thwart Cohen’s prosecution. If that’s what happened, we have a great mystery to solve. On whose authorization did the deleter nuke those records?
In either scenario, though, you’re left with a question: Why was the third SAR, the one that leaked, left in the database? If you’re going to purge information that’s damaging to Cohen for whatever virtuous or nefarious reason, logic dictates that you’d want to remove all of it. What Avenatti published was shady enough. Another thing: Surely there must be some log of who removed the SARs from the database and when, and just as surely they must be recoverable. To think that all trace of them could be wiped away by pulling them off the FINCEN database makes no sense. Some people, like Farrow’s source, would have already noticed that there were three reports before and only one now. And the banks that submitted them to FINCEN presumably have copies of them, or can re-create them if need be based on records of transactions in Cohen’s accounts. If deleting the records is an attempt at a cover-up, it seems like a half-assed one.
A little more from Farrow. The two missing SARs are from First Republic Bank, the one that housed the “Essential Consultants” bank account that Cohen used to pay Stormy Daniels and to receive payment from corporate clients whom he was, ahem, “consulting.” But other banks filed SARs on him too:
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney filed a separate sar showing that, during that same three-month period (June to September 2017), Cohen set up two accounts with the firm, into which he deposited three checks from his Essential Consultants account, two in the amount of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and one in the amount of five hundred and five thousand dollars. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney marked those transactions, which added up to more than a million dollars, as possible signs of “bribery or gratuity” and “suspicious use of third-party transactors (straw-man).”
Not great! But also not easily explained if there’s a behind-the-scenes effort at FINCEN to cover up Cohen’s shady transactions. If you’re going to nuke some of Cohen’s records to try to protect him, you’d probably want to also nuke the one by a globally famous investment bank suggesting bribery, no?
One last quote for you, but this one’s not from Farrow. I mentioned in this post earlier this afternoon that the Daily Mail had claimed that Cohen solicited big bucks from a Qatari official during the presidential transition and told him that he’d pass some money along to “Trump family members.” The detail about passing cash to the Trumps remains unconfirmed. But the fact that Cohen hit up the Qatari for money? Now confirmed by WaPo:
Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney, solicited a payment of at least $1 million from the government of Qatar in late 2016, in exchange for access to and advice about the then-incoming administration, according to several people with knowledge of the episode…
Cohen’s offer to Qatar came as he was bragging to others that he could make millions from consulting on Trump and that foreign governments would be interested in having his expertise. At the time, Cohen was also angling, unsuccessfully, as it turned out, to enter the White House, telling associates that he might become counsel or chief of staff.
Eh, it’s just more gossip spread by anonymous sources, right? Not quite: The Qatari official, Ahmed al-Rumaihi, confirmed to the Intercept in an interview earlier today that Cohen hit him up for a mil. Quote: “Al-Rumaihi said Cohen asked him for an upfront fee of $1 million for his services in the midst of their conversation about a potential Qatari investment in U.S. infrastructure.” The bit in WaPo’s except about Cohen jockeying for a White House job at the time can’t be emphasized enough. Leaning on some corporation for a bribe — sorry, I mean a “consulting fee” — when you’re working in the private sector and promising access to the president is scummy but pretty mundane scum by Washington standards. Hitting up a foreign government for money when you anticipate working for the U.S. government yourself sounds a lot like pretty straightforwardedly soliciting a bribe. Cohen denies everything, of course.