Questions swirl around Trump lawyer after payments revealed

Washington (AFP) –


Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's personal lawyer, faced growing scrutiny Wednesday following revelations that a shell company he established received millions of dollars from a Russian oligarch and corporations seeking White House access.

Cohen, Trump's attorney and fixer for the past decade, is under criminal investigation in New York and his home and office were raided by the FBI last month.

The probe was prompted by a tip from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has been looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but the authorities have not said what wrongdoing Cohen is suspected to have committed.

The various payments to Cohen were revealed by Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing porn star Stormy Daniels, who was paid $130,000 just days before the November 2016 election to keep quiet about an affair she claims to have had with Trump a decade earlier.

The New York Times and NBC News said they had reviewed financial documents that corroborated the payments made to Essential Consultants, the Delaware company set up by Cohen to pay Stormy Daniels.

The Avenatti document revealed a series of payments to Essential Consultants beyond the "hush money" payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

Essential Consultants received $500,000 from Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg and money from telecom giant AT&T, Switzerland-based pharmaceutical company Novartis and South Korea's Korea Aerospace Industries.

AT&T and Novartis confirmed having made the payments and Avenatti suggested that Cohen may have been seeking to profit from his longtime ties to Trump.

"It appears that this may be your typical pay-to-play type scenario, where you have someone close to a politician... selling access, potential access, to the president of the United States," Avenatti told CNN.

"Michael Cohen should not be selling access to the president of the United States."

- 'This is a big deal' -

"I don't believe that Michael Cohen is registered as a lobbyist," Avenatti continued. "I don't believe that he's registered, as he should be, in order to represent any foreign agents or foreign interests.

"This is a big deal," Avenatti said. "I mean, he had to be receiving the money for something."

Eight payments totaling $500,000 were received between January and August 2017 from Columbus Nova, the US arm of the Renova Group controlled by Vekselberg, the oligarch who has close ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and attended Trump's January 2017 inauguration.

"Mr Cohen inexplicably accepted these payments while he was the personal attorney to the president," the Avenatti document said.

It alleged that the funds "may have replenished the account following the payment to Ms Clifford."

Vekselberg was placed under US sanctions in April and has been questioned by Mueller's team investigating Russian meddling in the US presidential election.

In a statement, Columbus Nova said it had retained Cohen as a consultant "regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures."

Among the other payments were $200,000 from AT&T, whose proposed merger with Time Warner is currently before the courts after the Justice Department sued to block the sale.

"Essential Consultants was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration," AT&T said in a statement.

"They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017."

- 'Unable to provide the services' -

Novartis Investments acknowledged making four payments of $99,980 each to Essential Consultants.

In a statement, Novartis said it entered into a one-year agreement with Essential Consultations in February 2017.

"With the recent change in administration, Novartis believed that Michael Cohen could advise the company as to how the Trump administration might approach certain US health care policy matters, including the Affordable Care Act," Novartis said.

"In March 2017, Novartis had its first meeting with Michael Cohen under this agreement," the company addedd.

"Following this initial meeting, Novartis determined that Michael Cohen and Essential Consultants would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated related to US health care policy matters and the decision was taken not to engage further."

Novartis also said it had been contacted by Mueller's office in November regarding the agreement with Essential Consultants.

"Novartis cooperated fully with the special counsel's office and provided all the information requested," it said. "Novartis considers this matter closed."

Aircraft manufacturer Korea Aerospace Industries paid Essential Consultants $150,000 in November 2017 and another payment came from a Republican fundraiser who entered into a hush agreement with a Playboy playmate.

In all, at least $4.4 million flowed through Essential Consultants from shortly before Trump won the November 2016 election until January 2018.

Mueller's team is probing whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to get him elected, an allegation the president has repeatedly and vehemently denied.