Stormy Daniels’ lawyer said he has information showing that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, received 500,000 dollars (£369,000) from a company associated with a Russian billionaire within months of paying hush money to Ms Daniels, a porn star who claims she had an affair with the US president.
Lawyer Michael Avenatti also said hundreds of thousands of dollars streamed into Mr Cohen’s account from companies – including pharmaceutical giant Novartis, AT&T and Korea Aerospace – with US government business interests.
AT&T confirmed its connection on Tuesday evening.
Mr Avenatti did not reveal the source of his information or release documentation. In a seven-page memo, Mr Avenatti detailed what he said were wire transfers going into and out of the account Mr Cohen used to pay Ms Daniels 130,000 dollars (£96,000) in October 2016 to stay silent about her alleged affair with the soon-to-be president.
Mr Trump denies having an affair with Ms Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
Financial documents reviewed by The Associated Press appear to back up Mr Avenatti’s report.
The memo, containing specific dates and amounts, stated that Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire, and his cousin “routed” eight payments totalling approximately 500,000 dollars to Mr Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants, between January and August 2017. The reason for the payment was not known.
Speculating without offering proof, the Avenatti memo said: “It appears these funds may have replenished the account following the payment to Ms Clifford.”
Mr Avenatti’s memo said the deposits into the account controlled by Mr Cohen were made by Columbus Nova, an American investment company affiliated with the Renova Group, which is controlled by Mr Vekselberg.
Columbus Nova’s attorney, Richard Owens, stressed in a statement that the company is “solely owned and controlled by Americans” and said that, after Mr Trump’s inauguration, the firm hired Mr Cohen as a business consultant “regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures”, but that it had nothing to do with Mr Vekselberg.
Mr Owens said any suggestion that Mr Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Mr Cohen was false.
“Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else, other than Columbus Nova’s owners, were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement,” he said.
Mr Cohen is currently under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, but has not been charged.
At the time of the payments, there was an active FBI counter-intelligence investigation – which special counsel Robert Mueller took over last May – into Russian election interference and any possible coordination with Trump associates.
Mr Vekselberg was targeted for US sanctions by the Trump administration last month. He built his fortune, currently estimated by Forbes at 14.6 billion dollars (£10.8 billion), by investing in the aluminium and oil industries. More recently, he has expanded his assets to include industrial equipment and high technology.
Offering confirmation for more of the payments, AT&T said in a statement that Essential Consultants was one of several firms it “engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration”.
Mr Avenatti alleged that the company made four 50,000-dollar payments (£37,000) to Mr Cohen totalling 200,000 dollars (£147,000) in late 2017 and early 2018.
AT&T said Mr Cohen’s company “did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017”. Mr Cohen is not a registered lobbyist, according to public records.
Such a confidential relationship would not violate federal lobbying laws if Mr Cohen did not seek to influence Mr Trump on the companies’ behalf. However, hiring the president’s personal attorney for advice on how to woo Mr Trump would be highly unusual, especially given that Mr Cohen was never formally involved in the campaign or the Trump administration.
Making the arrangement even stranger, the blue-chip companies’ payments to Mr Cohen were routed to Essential Consultants LLC – the same company Mr Cohen used to buy Stormy Daniels’ silence about her alleged affair with the president.
Mr Trump’s Justice Department has sued to block AT&T from an 85 billion dollar (£62.7 billion) merger with Time Warner, saying it would hurt competition and consumers would have to pay more to watch their favourite shows.
Korea Aerospace, which is alleged to have paid Mr Cohen 150,000 dollars (£110,700) in November 2017, confirmed it paid Mr Cohen’s company for a business deal.
A company spokesman in Seoul said Korea Aerospace Industries had a contract with Essential Consultants, Michael Cohen’s company, for legal advice on accounting standards. The payment was made under a “legal” deal between the two, said the spokesperson, who refused to answer questions about the size or dates of any payments.
A spokesman for Novartis, a multinational pharmaceutical company, could not confirm or deny the payment, but said any agreements with Essential Consultants were entered before the company’s current CEO took over in February of this year and have since expired.
The memo alleges the company paid Mr Cohen 399,920 dollars (£295,360) in late 2017 and early 2018 in four payments – each amounting to 99,980 dollars (£73,800).
Mr Trump had dinner with Novartis’ soon-to-be CEO Vasant Narasimhan, along with other European executives, at the World Economic Forum in Davos shortly after the date of the final payment.
Larry Noble, senior director of the Campaign Legal Centre, said there is nothing technically wrong with companies like Novartis and AT&T hiring people like Mr Cohen to provide insight into the president’s thinking. But he said the arrangement described by Mr Avenatti “certainly doesn’t look good”.
“Why would you go to the president’s private fixer?” he asked.
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