“Says Who?” – Piecing Together the Michael Cohen Story

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, left, chats with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, right, and Trump attorney Michael D. Cohen, center, in the lobby at Trump Tower, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, in New Yor... Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, left, chats with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, right, and Trump attorney Michael D. Cohen, center, in the lobby at Trump Tower, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) MORE LESS
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I wanted to take a moment to put together some of the different pieces of the emerging story of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer and right-hand-man for the last decade. For months we have seen reports that the communications and in some cases financial transactions of a small group of President Trump’s associates are being scrutinized by federal law enforcement and intelligence for ties to and communications with Russian nationals and/or government officials during the 2016 campaign. Those reports usually focus on Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Carter Page. But Cohen comes up on this list, too. In mid-February, The New York Times reported that Cohen “is one of several Trump associates under scrutiny in an FBI counterintelligence examination of links with Russia, according to law enforcement officials.”

While each of the first four men has consistently denied any wrongdoing, there is at least a logic to why they would come up in such a probe. Manafort and Page have long public histories of work in the former Soviet Union. Flynn is known for his support of a rapprochement with Russia, his communications with the Russian ambassador and more. Stone has his cagey statements about being in communication with Julian Assange during the election and he certainly seems to have been foreknowledge of the release of John Podesta’s emails. Despite being mentioned rather extensively in the Trump “dossier”— claims that he vociferously denies and which remain unsubstantiated —Cohen has always seemed like the odd man out in that group, the last guy in the Trump world you’d expect to come up in the context of a counterintelligence investigation or or for having channels into the Russian government.

That is one of the many reasons I was surprised earlier this month when Cohen popped up as the go-between, along with Felix Sater, for Ukrainian parliamentarian Andrii Artemenko, passing on a pro-Russian “peace plan” and compromising dossier on the current President of Ukraine to President Trump. But looking at Cohen’s background, I am surprised he had not already garnered attention for his numerous connections to Ukraine, the center point of ongoing tensions between Russia and the United States.

As I noted over the weekend, published reports and my own reporting suggest Cohen first came to the attention of Donald Trump because he and his extended family were buying up numerous Trump apartment units in New York, New Jersey and Florida. Cohen’s Ukrainian in-laws purchased at least four units by the middle of the last decade. By that time, Cohen was already purchasing his fifth Trump apartment. But this only scratches the surface of the numerous ways in which Cohen’s personal wealth and professional life appear to have been shaped by a series of friendships, and familial and business partnerships with Ukrainian immigrants, either operating businesses in the United States or Ukraine.

By his late 30s, when he came into Trump’s orbit (circa 2006-07), Cohen was by all appearances already a very wealthy man. He had already compiled an extensive New York area real estate portfolio, mainly tied to New York City residential properties. But the original source of his wealth appears tied to a series of non-real estate business partnerships. The one common thread connecting these partnerships in businesses ranging from taxis to gambling to energy is that each involved a partnership with immigrants from Ukraine.

The earliest of these businesses appears to be the taxi business with partner Simon Garber, a now fantastically successful taxi entrepreneur who owns hundreds of taxi medallions in New York as well as huge stakes in the taxi industry in Chicago, New Orleans and (formerly) Moscow (Garber left the Moscow market after the market collapse in 1998.) Garber is a larger-than-life figure who founded the International Polo Club of Colts Neck near his estate in Colts Neck, New Jersey. To give a sense of perspective, during the time Cohen was in the taxi business with Garber, the price of an individual medallion was about a quarter of a million dollars and starting a massive run up that would reach roughly $1 million before a steep drop off in recent years because of Uber and Lyft. In 2003 Cohen listed himself as a co-owner of a fleet of “more than 200 taxis.” What Cohen’s stake was and how leveraged the business was is not clear. But this a highly lucrative and incredibly capital intensive business.

Cohen says he sold his share of the business to Garber in the early 2000s, though Cohen continues to own substantial taxi medallion holdings. Cohen’s medallions are now managed by Evgeny Friedman, an Russian emigre from St Petersburg who owns more taxi medallions than any other person in New York City (more than 800 out 13,605).

Cohen also got into the business of casino boats. Cohen was the CEO of MLA Cruises, a Florida-based casino company which took patrons out of US territorial waters to gamble legally. This partnership was with two other Ukrainian immigrants, Arkady Vaygensberg and Leonid Tatarchuk. When Cohen made an unsuccessful run for the New York City Council in 2003 he listed his occupations as “Co-owner of Taxi Funding Corp. and a fleet of more than 200 taxis, and CEO of MLA Cruises, Inc., and of the Atlantic Casino.” MLA Cruises was incorporated in 2002 and dissolved in 2006.

Then there was a venture into the Ukranian ethanol business. Here Cohen’s where family relationships came most clearly to the fore. Michael Cohen’s wife, Laura, is from Ukraine. Michael’s younger brother Bryan is also married to a Ukrainian woman, Oxana Cohen. Oxana’s father, Alex Oronov, is a naturalized US citizen who was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 1948. He is the founder of a Ukrainian agribusiness company called Grain Alliance, which is based in Sweden.

It was Oronov’s farming business in Ukraine that brought Michael and Bryan Cohen into the ethanol business. In 2006, Cohen incorporated International Ethanol of Ukraine, Ltd., along with his Bryan Cohen and Oronov, according to Delaware state records. A year later the group incorporated Ukrethanol LLC, a company which appears to be involved in, among other things, exporting used farm equipment from the U.S. to Ukraine on behalf of Grain Alliance. Cohen’s only comments tied to this phase of his business career came in a January 2017 interview with Yahoo News in which Cohen said he had only been to Ukraine twice “either 2003 or 2004,” because his “brother’s father-in-law [i.e., Oronov] lives in Kiev.” Oronov is registered to vote in Florida (he maintains a residence at the Trump Hollywood in Hollywood, Florida) and appears to have a residence in Long Island, New York. He may also maintain a residence in Kiev.

It is not clear precisely how these two companies figure in the Ukrainian ethanol business. But the Kyiv Post reports that it is these two companies which are the basis of the the Cohen brothers’ involvement in the Ukraine ethanol industry.

Oronov immigrated to the United States in 1978, according to a 1991 Associated Press article, and ran an art gallery in Manhattan at the time the story was published. Oronov began scouting out possible art-based joint ventures in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era. Eventually he found a big one.

From the AP

Four years ago, Alex Oronov, an art dealer who immigrated to the United States in 1978, approached the museum looking for a joint venture: He wanted to print catalogs and sell lithographs using the museum’s collection.

Last year, after two years of red tape, Oronov, his U.S. partners and the museum launched the State Russian Museum Publishing Co., with offices and a gallery in the trendy Manhattan neighborhood Soho.

This June, it broke ground by opening a museum shop – a Soviet rarity – in Leningrad. The city will officially return to its prerevolutionary name, St. Petersburg, next month.

And its palaces exhibit, which opens at a gallery Thursday for a three-week run, prefaces a show of Russian avant-garde art, mostly from the State Russian Museum, at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

It was only in the aftermath of Ukrainian independence in 1994, according to his professional biography, that Oronov became involved in the newly independent country’s agricultural sector.

The taxi, gambling and ethanol businesses show up most clearly in news reports and public records. Other Ukraine-related ventures are more difficult to track down. For instance, in 1998 a “Michael D. Cohen” incorporated Ukrainian Capital Partners LP and Ukrainian Capital Growth Fund Corp, according to New York Department of State records. The latter was dissolved in 2002. But the former remains active, according to state records.

From all evidence Cohen is a very wealthy man. In addition to the other businesses and real estate holdings noted above, as recently as 2015 he purchased a $58 million apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This is in addition to numerous luxury apartment units and other buildings on the Lower East Side and Kips Bay, according to the New York real estate news site The Real Deal.

The various business ventures noted above, especially the taxi business, appear to have been the source of the wealth that allowed Cohen to start buying up New York real estate at the beginning of the century. Cohen is a lawyer and passed the New York state bar in 1992, the year after he graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. But from an early age he seems to have functioned at least as much as an entrepreneur and businessman as a practicing lawyer.

Given these extensive ties to individuals in the Ukrainian-American community and Ukraine, it seems much less surprising that Cohen figured into the mix when the Ukrainian MP Artemenko wanted to bring his “peace plan” to President Trump. (What has gotten less attention and may have been more central to Artemenko’s plans was the dossier of allegedly damaging information about Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko which Artemenko says was also part of the materials he gave Cohen. Artemenko has said he believed those would lead to Poroshenko’s fall from power, a necessary first step in bringing his plan to fruition.) Indeed, as I noted over the weekend, Artemenko says he’s known Cohen for years and began discussing his peace plan with him last year. Artemenko has now backed off those claims or at least made inconsistent statements. But if that is true, it suggests that Cohen’s business ties in this world have built relationships with a political dimension as well.

Cohen did not return a call requesting comment on Artemenko’s assertions about a longstanding relationship or discussions of the “peace plan” during the 2016 GOP primaries.

We know from public records that in the last decade Trump became highly dependent on money from the former Soviet Union, both to finance mega-projects like Trump SoHo but also as a source of buyers of apartment units at Trump high-rises in New York City, Florida and other locales (The Cohen brothers and their families are purchasers of at least 12 apartments in Trump buildings – 11, according to a 2006 article in The New York Post and one owned by the Oronovs, according to Florida public records.) Donald Trump, Jr. said famously in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia”.

Cohen and his extended family appear to have been part of that flow of luxury apartment purchases from people from the former Soviet Union. And Cohen himself joined the Trump Organization in the period when Trump’s reliance on investment capital from the former Soviet Union for projects like Trump Soho moved into high gear.

Trump has repeatedly insisted he has no loans from the Russia and no ‘deals’ in Russia. There is no specific evidence to refute his claims. But Trump’s real need has been for investment capital and wealthy people to purchase units in his luxury projects or those to which he licenses his name. And there is voluminous evidence for both.

Press attention has tended to focus on people like Carter Page and Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn. But Cohen plays a far more central role in this era of Trump’s business history than these others. He is also the only one who shows up clearly acting as a go-between to the President for someone trying to shift administration policy to reduce or eliminate sanctions on Russia. Carter Page has very little connection with Trump. It’s not entirely clear the two men have ever met. Trump’s relationship with Paul Manafort goes back to the 2006-07 period, well before the campaign. But they were at best acquaintances for the last decade. It’s Cohen who has a had a decade-long and very close working relationship with Trump.

If we are looking for the trail of money from the former Soviet Union into The Trump Organization and a key player during the era when that capital became far more central to Trump’s business, Cohen seems like a much more logical place to look than Manafort, Page, Flynn or any of the others.

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