It’s one of the world’s biggest embezzlement cases, featuring a global hunt for $6 billion stolen from a Kazakh bank that’s led investigators to Russia, a Trump Manhattan property, and a dawn raid along the French riviera.
But the case took a bizarre turn on Wednesday, when it was revealed that Michael Cohen was linked to the investigation.
Republicans asked the former Trump fixer about his work for Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank during the House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday, trying to accuse the former Trump fixer of failing to register as a lobbyist for the Kazakh government.
“BTA Bank, did you get money from them?” a red-faced Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) growled at the hearing.
Cohen confirmed that he did, but said he was hired to help the bank locate stolen money. He said that some of the money “was here in the United States and they sought my assistance in finding, locating that money and helping them to collect it.”
A lawyer for BTA Bank confirmed on Thursday that it had hired Cohen in 2017, but told TPM that Cohen “did absolutely nothing of value” for the lender.
“Michael Cohen was recommended to BTA Bank in 2017 as a person who had access to the best legal resources, and was hired by BTA to assemble a winning team. Instead, Michel Cohen did absolutely nothing of value, and BTA quickly tore up its agreement with him,” BTA lawyer Matthew L. Schwartz wrote in a statement. “Since that time, BTA has cooperated fully with all law enforcement investigations of Michael Cohen.”
In 2009, BTA Bank launched one of the world’s biggest detective operations aimed at clawing back billions of dollars. The bank’s former chairman Mukhtar Ablyazov fled his native Kazakhstan in that year, claiming that political pressure had forced him to leave and had taken the bank away from him. After his departure, the bank was declared insolvent and temporarily nationalized.
The bank, as well as Kazakh and Russian authorities, accused Ablyazov and a family of associates of taking $6 billion of the bank’s cash with them, leading the bank — and the government of Kazakhstan — to launch the worldwide manhunt. Ablyazov was arrested by French special forces in a raid on his Mediterranean mansion in 2013, pursuant to a Russian arrest warrant, before being released in 2016 after a court ruled that he would be denied fair treatment if extradited to Russia.
Ablyazov attorney Andrew Solomon told TPM that Thursday “was the first time I heard about Cohen’s connection.” He then accused the government of Kazakhstan of “enlisting western governments to assist in its campaign of repression against political rivals of the current undemocratic regime.”
Republicans at the oversight hearing also accused Cohen of taking $900,000 from the Kazakh government.
Schwartz, the BTA attorney, told TPM that the bank hadn’t paid Cohen that money.
“BTA Bank — which is owned privately, not by the government of Kazakhstan — did not pay Michael Cohen $900,000 for his worthless ‘service,’ or anything like it,” he wrote.
The bank claims that Cohen was useless, and it’s not clear if he used his legendary anger to try to recover any of the money, or if he even tried to “assemble a winning team.” But Cohen did reportedly make $300,000 over two months for his work for the bank.
The case also prompted U.S. litigation, which is focused on a portion of the money that was allegedly laundered through New York City.
Three apartments in — you guessed it — the Trump SoHo building were caught up in the case, since the purchase of the property was used as a money laundering vehicle.
It’s not clear if Cohen’s recovery efforts led him to Trump Soho, but the story suggests that he remained linked to that investigation — and stayed involved in the world of dirty post-Soviet cash — long after his biggest client entered the White House.
The New York lawsuit has also featured cameos from Felix Sater, a former Cohen associate and Trump Tower Moscow promoter.
Court filings in the case say that Sater is a former associate of people accused in the BTA fraud, though Sater had a falling out with those individuals. BTA paid a firm belonging to Sater $2.5 million for investigative work on the case, leading to accusations that the bank was paying a witness.
Sater told TPM that he wasn’t aware Cohen had worked on the BTA case until watching the hearing.