Michael Cohen’s deep ties to the Russian mafia

If you only get your news from network/cable television news, the media narrative in the Michael Cohen case is that the Special Counsel’s investigation came across some information in its Russia investigation about Cohen’s handling of nondisclosure agreements with Donald Trump’s sexcapades that Robert Mueller decided was outside the scope of his investigation, so it was referred to the U.S. Attorney office for the Southern District of New York.

But then there was this allegation about taxi medallions, and the television news media was all “what’s up with that?” Maybe they should, oh I don’t know, do some reporting and find out.

It turns out that the current media narrative is incorrect. Michael Cohen has deep ties to the Russian and Ukrainian mafia in New York, and the taxi medallions involve a lot of mob money which is part of Cohen’s personal fortune. The Cohen case is about Russian influence, not just Donald Trump’s sexcapades.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has a hint of what the Cohen case is about. Good Grief. Cohen’s World Gets Mobbier The Closer I Look:

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 [recently] “gave up his stake.”

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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 … The El Caribe seems like the logical locus which brought Cohen into this world.

Rolling Stone has published an excerpt from Seth Hettena’s new book Trump / Russia: A Definitive History to be published by Melville House Publishing on May 8th, which goes into more detail. A Brief History of Michael Cohen’s Criminal Ties (excerpts):

Cohen joined the Trump Organization in 2006, and eventually became Trump’s personal lawyer, a role once occupied by Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s heavy-lidded hatchet man during the Red Scare who advised Trump in the 1980s. Michael Cohen’s bare-knuckled tactics earned him the nickname of “Tom,” a reference to Tom Hagen, the consigliore to Mafia Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. He grew up on Long Island, the son of a physician who survived the Holocaust in Poland, and like Tom Hagen spent a childhood around organized crime, specifically the Russian Mafiya. Cohen’s uncle, Morton Levine, was a wealthy Brooklyn doctor who owned the El Caribe Country Club, a Brooklyn catering hall and event space that was a well-known hangout for Russian gangsters. Cohen and his siblings all had ownership stakes in the club, which rented for years to the first Mafiya boss of Brighton Beach, Evsei Agron, along with his successors, Marat Balagula and Boris Nayfeld. (Cohen’s uncle said his nephew gave up his stake in the club after Trump’s election.)

I spoke to two former federal investigators who told me Cohen was introduced to Donald Trump by his father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ukraine who arrived in the U.S. in 1975. Shusterman was in the garment business and owned a fleet of taxicabs with his partners, Shalva Botier and Edward Zubok – all three men were convicted of a money-laundering related offense in 1993. “Fima may have been a (possibly silent) business partner with Trump, perhaps even used as a conduit for Russian investors in Trump properties and other ventures,” a former federal investigator told me. “Cohen, who married into the family, was given the job with the Trump Org as a favor to Shusterman.” (“Untrue,” Cohen told me. “Your source is creating fake news.”)

Shusterman, who owned at least four New York taxi companies, also set his son-in-law up in the yellow cab business. Cohen once ran 260 yellow cabs with his Ukrainian-born partner, the “taxi king” Simon V. Garber, until their partnership ended acrimoniously in 2012. Glenn Simpson, the private investigator who was independently hired to examine Trump’s Russia connections during the real estate mogul’s presidential run, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that Cohen “had a lot of connections to the former Soviet Union, and that he seemed to have associations with organized crime figures in New York and Florida – Russian organized crime figures,” including Garber.

* * *

Cohen was able to purchase a $1 million condo at Trump World Tower in 2001, persuading his parents, his Ukrainian in-laws and Garber to do the same in other Trump buildings. Cohen’s in-laws Fima and Ania Shusterman bought three units in Trump World Tower worth a combined $7.66 million (one of which was rented to Jocelyn Wildenstein, the socialite known as “Catwoman” for undergoing extreme facial plastic surgery to please her cat-loving husband). Cohen later purchased a nearly $5 million unit in Trump Park Avenue. In a five-year period, he and people connected to him would purchase Trump properties worth $17.3 million. All the frenzied buying by Cohen and his family caught the attention of the New York Post, often described as Trump’s favorite newspaper. “Michael Cohen has a great insight into the real-estate market,” Trump told a reporter in 2007. “He has invested in my buildings because he likes to make money – and he does.” Trump added, “In short, he’s a very smart person.”

During Trump’s presidential run, reporters noticed a curious thing about Cohen. Questions about Trump’s business or his taxes went to his chief legal officer or another staffer, but Cohen handled questions about Russia. “One of the things that we learned that caught my interest,” Simpson testified to Congress in November 2017, “serious questions about Donald Trump’s activities in Russia and the former Soviet Union went to Michael Cohen, and that he was the only person who had information on that subject or was in a position to answer those questions.”

In the 1990s, there was an informal group of federal and local law enforcement agents investigating the Russian Mafiya in New York that called themselves “Red Star.” They shared information they learned from informants. It was well known among the members of Red Star that Cohen’s father-in-law was funneling money into Trump ventures. Several sources have told me that Cohen was one of several attorneys who helped money launderers purchase apartments in a development in Sunny Isles Beach, a seaside Florida town just north of Miami. This was an informal arrangement passed word-of-mouth: “We have heard from Russian sources that … in Florida, Cohen and other lawyers acted as a conduit for money.”

A year after Trump World Tower opened in 2002, Trump had agreed to let Miami father-and-son developers Gil and Michael Dezer use his name on what ultimately became six Sunny Isles Beach condominium towers, which drew in new moneyed Russians all too eager to pay millions. “Russians love the Trump brand,” said Gil Dezer, who added that Russians and Russian-Americans bought some 200 of the 2,000 or so units in Trump buildings he built. A seventh Trump-branded hotel tower built up Sunny Isles into what ostensibly has become a South Florida Brighton Beach.

An investigation by Reuters found that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in the seven Trump-branded luxury towers. And that was a conservative estimate. At least 703 – or about one-third – of the 2044 units were owned by limited liability companies, or LLCs, which could conceal the property’s true owner. Executives from Gazprom and other Russian natural resource giants also owned units in Trump’s Sunny Isles towers. In an observation that several people I spoke with echoed, Kenneth McCallion, a former prosecutor who tracked the flows of Russian criminal money into Trump’s properties, told me, “Trump’s genius – or evil genius – was, instead of Russian criminal money being passive, incidental income, it became a central part of his business plan.” McCallion continued, “It’s not called ‘Little Moscow’ for nothing. The street signs are in Russian. But his towers there were built specifically for the Russian middle-class criminal.”

Cohen joined the Trump Organization around the time that the second Sunny Isles tower was being built. A few years earlier, he had invested $1.5 million in a short-lived Miami-based casino boat venture run by his two Ukrainian business partners, Arkady Vaygensberg and Leonid Tatarchuk. Only three months after its maiden voyage, it would become the subject of a large fraud investigation. But Cohen was saved from his bad investment by none other than Trump himself, who hired Cohen as an attorney just before his casino ship sank. A source who investigated Cohen’s connections to Russia told me, “Say you want to get money into the country and maybe you’re a bit suspect. The Trump organization used lawyers to allow people to get money into the country.”

Residents at Sunny Isles included people like Vladimir Popovyan, who paid $1.17 million for a three-bedroom condo in 2013. Forbes Russia described Popovyan as a friend and associate of Rafael Samurgashev, a former championship wrestler who ran a criminal group in Rostov-on-Don in southeastern Russia. Peter Kiritchenko, a Ukrainian businessman arrested on fraud charges in San Francisco in 1999, and his daughter owned two units at Trump Towers in Sunny Isles Beach worth $2.56 million. (Kiritchenko testified against a corrupt former Ukrainian prime minister who was convicted in 2004 of money laundering.) Other owners of Trump condos in Sunny Isles include members of a Russian-American organized crime group that ran a sports betting ring out of Trump Tower, which catered to wealthy oligarchs from the former Soviet Union. Michael Barukhin, who was convicted in a massive scheme to defraud auto insurers with phony claims, lived out of a Trump condo that was registered to a limited liability corporation.

Selling units from the lobby of the Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles was Baronoff Realty. Elena Baronoff, who died of cancer in 2015, was the exclusive sales agent for three Trump-branded towers. Glenn Simpson, who spent a year investigating Trump’s background during the campaign, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that Baronoff was a “suspected organized crime figure.”

An Uzbek immigrant who arrived in the United States as a cultural attaché in public diplomacy from the Soviet Union, Baronoff became such a well-known figure in Sunny Isles Beach that she was named the international ambassador for the community. Baronoff accompanied Trump’s children on a trip to Russia in the winter of 2007–2008, posing for a photo in Moscow with Ivanka and Eric Trump and developer Michael Dezer. Also in the photo, curiously, was a man named Michael Babel, a former senior executive of a property firm owned by Oleg Deripaska, the Russian metals tycoon Paul Manafort allegedly offered personal updates on Trump’s presidential campaign. Babel later fled Russia to evade fraud charges.

Baronoff had interesting connections to Sicily. She reportedly met her friend, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, there. Baronoff was also close with Dino Papale, a local businessman, who described himself to The New York Times as “president of Trump’s Sicilian fan club,” while sporting a red “Make America Great Again” cap. Days after Trump’s election in November, the local newspaper, La Sicilia, quoted Papale at length describing Trump’s secret visit to the island in 2013. Papale hinted that he organized meetings between Trump and Russians.

Michael Cohen’s in-laws, the Shustermans, also bought real estate in Sunny Isles. The development was paying off. Trump’s oldest son, Don Jr., would later note, “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” There is no question Trump owed his comeback in large part to wealthy Russian expatriates.

Cohen and Felix Sater have known each other for nearly 30 years. They met in Brighton Beach when Cohen started dating his future wife, Shusterman’s daughter, Laura, who Sater says he knew from the neighborhood. When Cohen joined the Trump organization, Sater had become a fixture in the office. Sater was developing Trump SoHo, a hotel-condo in lower Manhattan that later would be consumed by scandal, and had earned Trump’s trust. Trump asked him to look after his children, Ivanka and Don Jr., on a 2006 visit to Moscow. (It was during the Moscow trip that Sater used his Kremlin connections to impress Trump’s daughter. Sater would later boast: “I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putin’s private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin.”) When Sater’s criminal past was exposed in The New York Times, Trump suddenly looked and acted like a man with something to hide. Despite laying claim to “one of the great memories of all time,” he seemed to be having trouble recollecting who Sater was. “Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it,” Trump told The Associated Press in 2015. “I’m not that familiar with him.” Sater flatly contradicted Trump’s version of their relationship. In a little-noticed interview with a Russian publication, Snob, Sater was asked if his criminal past was a problem for Trump. “No, it was not. He makes his own decision regarding each and every individual.”

In the midst of Trump’s presidential run, Sater was shopping a deal to build a Trump World Tower Moscow. Between September 2015 and January 2016, Sater tried to broker a deal for a Moscow company called IC Expert Investment Company. (Sater worked for IC Expert’s owner, Andrei Rozov, after he left Bayrock.) Trump signed a letter of intent in October with IC Expert Investment for a Moscow hotel-condo with the option for a “Spa by Ivanka Trump.” Providing financing was VTB, a Russian bank subject to U.S. sanctions. Sater’s contact at the Trump Organization was his old friend, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen. In mid-January, Sater urged Cohen to send an email to Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, “since the proposal would require approvals within the Russian government that had not been issued.” Cohen sent the email, got no reply, and said he abandoned the proposal two weeks later.

What Cohen called his old friend’s “colorful language” attracted attention from congressional investigators and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office: “Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin,” Sater emailed Cohen in November 2015. “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this.”

Sater gave an unsatisfactory answer to BuzzFeed about why he wrote this email. “If a deal can get done and I could make money and he could look like a statesman, what the fuck is the downside, right?”

Shortly after Trump took office, Sater teamed up with Cohen to submit a Ukrainian peace plan to then national security advisor Michael Flynn that would have opened the door to lifting sanctions on Russia. What happened to the plan? The lawyer at first told The New York Times that he left the plan in Flynn’s office. Then, after the story became an embarrassment, he called the Times story “fake news” and claimed he pitched the plan into the trash.

Cohen has always acted to protect Trump, and he likely believed that he could always rely on the impenetrable shield of attorney-client privilege. Arguably, no one who has worked with Trump over the past decade knows more about the president’s past business dealings in Russia and elsewhere abroad than Cohen. Now that prosecutors have him in their sights, here’s the question: Will Cohen’s shield, now broken, become a sword?

Why is Trump freaking out about the documents and recordings the FBI seized from Michael Cohen? Those documents recordings may contain evidence of Russian influence over Trump with which he has been or can be compromised. Cohen is a key to the “collusion” investigation. Stormy Daniels is the sideshow and a distraction.

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