In today’s podcast, we look into the background of Michael Cohen. TPM first reported last year that Cohen was actually a childhood friend of Felix Sater, whose father was himself a reputed capo in the Mogilevich organized crime syndicate, said to be Russia’s largest and most dangerous. Filling out this picture of how Cohen fell into this milieu we’ve always been focused on the fact that Cohen’s uncle, Morton Levine, owned and ran a Brooklyn social club, El Caribe, which was a well-known meeting spot for members of Italian and Russian organized crime families in the 1970s and 1980s. (Levine, a medical doctor has never been charged with a crime.) But now it turns out there’s a bit more to this story.
I came across this in a January AP article about Boris Nayfeld, one-time organized crime boss in Brooklyn who now wants to go home to Russia to start a new life. Nayfeld is 70 and he just finished his latest prison sentence. The whole story is a bit low energy and a sad sack in a nonetheless menacing and predatory way.
According to published reports, in the 70s and early 80s, the boss of the Russian mob in New York (and for practical purposes the whole U.S) was a man named Evsei Agron. Things ended badly for Agron when was gunned down in a mob hit in 1985. After Agron was assassinated, his organization was taken over by under-boss Marat Balagula. Authorities believed Balagula was behind Agron’s killing. But he was never charged with the crime. Balagula ran things until 1991 when he was convicted of gasoline bootlegging. Nayfeld had been the bodyguard and enforcer for both Agron and Balagula, one would say more successfully in the latter case than the former. He took over the organization when Balagula went to prison.
What I didn’t realize until now is that both Agron and his successor Balagula ran their operations out of an office in the El Caribe social club. So the El Caribe wasn’t just a mob hangout. From the 70s through the 90s at least, the bosses of the Russian mafia in the U.S. literally ran their crime organization out of the El Caribe.
So Michael Cohen’s uncle Morton Levine’s social club was the headquarters of Russian organized crime in the U.S.
That’s quite something.
The AP article includes another detail.
According to Levine, who is apparently still alive, all his nieces and nephews owned shares of the El Caribe and still do. Levine told the AP that Michael Cohen owned his stake in the club until Donald Trump was elected President when he “gave up his stake.”
That was probably wise!
It was also very recent.
One of the abiding questions about Cohen is how he became so deeply enmeshed in the Ukrainian and Russian emigre communities from such an early age and moved so early into businesses heavily infiltrated by organized crime. He married a Ukrainian immigrant whose father got him into the taxi business and himself had at least one conviction for money laundering. Cohen was raised in the Five Towns area of Long Island, not far from Brighton Beach as the crow flies – just across Jamaica Bay – but worlds away culturally. The El Caribe seems like the logical locus which brought Cohen into this world.