A federal investigation into what role President Donald Trump’s personal attorney played in facilitating payments to two women who alleged affairs with Trump is also examining the lawyer’s interactions with a bank that gave him loans against his taxi business.
When they raided the office of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen on Monday, FBI agents sought his communications with New York-based Sterling National Bank about taxi medallions owned by Cohen, according to a person familiar with the search warrant.
The request indicates that prosecutors may have interest in specific financial transactions that Cohen undertook while using his taxi business as collateral.
The request for records about Cohen’s communications with Sterling provides a fuller picture of the federal investigation into the longtime Trump confidant. The probe appears focused in part on Cohen’s efforts tamp down negative stories about the real estate mogul as he ran for president, according to people familiar with the work of investigators.
People with knowledge of the inquiry have told The Washington Post that Cohen is under investigation for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations.
Cohen has held taxi interests as a side business even as he worked as a top lawyer for Trump for the last decade. Public records show he took out a business loan from Sterling in late 2014 for an unspecified amount using three taxi companies as collateral. Cohen also obtained a $1.98 million real estate loan with his in-laws from the bank in 2015, records show.
Andy MacMillan, a spokesman for Sterling, declined to comment on Cohen, saying customer information is confidential. He said the bank cooperates with all proper government requests for information or documents.
Cohen did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney, Stephen Ryan, declined to comment. Earlier this week, Ryan called the raids “inappropriate and unnecessary” and complained that investigators seized privileged records.
The effort by investigators to obtain documents related to the bank and Cohen’s taxi business is the latest detail to emerge about the raid of Cohen’s office and residences Monday, which enraged Trump.
During their search, federal prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York also sought information related to Cohen’s October 2016 payment of $130,000 to adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an affair with Trump. Cohen has said he used a home-equity line of credit to make the payment and that Trump was not aware of it.
On Thursday, Cohen and Trump’s lawyers told a federal judge they intend to request a stay in separate civil litigation regarding the Daniels case because they said the criminal investigation “implicates” Cohen’s Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
The search warrant used in the Cohen raid also included requests for information on Cohen’s communications with Trump about “potential sources of negative publicity” before the 2016 election, including an “Access Hollywood” tape that captured Trump making vulgar comments about women, The Post has reported.
The inquiry was opened by the Manhattan-based U.S. attorney’s office following a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller III.
Though taxi medallions have declined dramatically in value with the proliferation of ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, they remain valuable assets that allow holders to operate a taxi. The medallions are also often used by their holders as collateral for loans. Industry analysts say the New York City medallions reached a peak value of about $1.2 million apiece in 2014 but are currently worth about $300,000 each.
Cohen started in the cab business in the 1990s while working as a personal injury lawyer, years before he joined the Trump Organization.
In an interview with The Post last year, Cohen said his clients at the time included many taxi cab companies and that he learned one client was selling his taxi business.
“He asked me if I wanted to buy it. So I took a shot and I knew his partner, because I represented him as well. That’s how I got into the taxi business,” Cohen said.
Cohen left the taxi business a decade ago to work for Trump, but he has maintained ownership of a few dozen taxi medallions in New York and Chicago, according to Cohen and public records. He owns his medallions through a series of companies with colorful names such as Sir Michael Hacking Corporation and Lady Laura Hacking Corporation, apparently named for his wife, public records show.
When he was in the taxi business full time, Cohen worked with Simon Garber, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who also operated a fleet of cabs in Moscow. (Cohen said he never worked with Garber in Russia.)
Cohen said his New York fleet also included medallions he purchased from his wife’s parents.
By 2003, when Cohen made an unsuccessful New York City Council bid, he owned a fleet of 200 taxis, he told a voter’s guide at the time.
Cohen told The Post last year that he sold the management of the fleet to Garber around that time, but he retained ownership of some medallions. Their relationship soured during a bitter contractual dispute.
By then, Cohen was working as an attorney at the Trump Organization and collecting income on a small number of medallions. He contracted with Evgeny “Gene” Friedman, another immigrant from the former Soviet Union known as the “Taxi King” of New York, to manage his fleet, according to people with knowledge of the taxi industry.
Friedman has struggled financially as the value of taxi medallions has plummeted in recent years. He declared bankruptcy on some of his medallions in 2016 and last year was charged by the New York state attorney general with theft related to allegedly failing to pay $5 million in taxes, according to public records. Friedman has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial June 18.
Friedman’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment. Another Friedman attorney has denied that he committed wrongdoing.
Records held by the New York Department of Taxation and Finance show that Cohen’s medallion companies currently owe more than $55,000 in taxes.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig