Attorney Michael Cohen arrives at Trump Tower in New York, U.S., (Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg)

Russian Oligarch Tied to Trump Lawyer in Stormy Bombshell

(Bloomberg) -- A company tied to a Russian oligarch sent $500,000 last year to an entity that President Donald Trump’s lawyer used to pay hush money to porn actress Stephanie Clifford, her attorney Michael Avenatti claimed.

That and other revelations caught the president’s team off guard when Avenatti unveiled them Tuesday on Twitter. It’s the latest twist in litigation brought by Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels, centered on a $130,000 payment that lawyer Michael Cohen arranged on the eve of the 2016 presidential election to secure Clifford’s silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump.

In a document made public online, Avenatti uncovered several corporate relationships. Among $4.43 million in transactions he identified as suspicious were deposits from AT&T Inc. and a unit of Novartis AG to the Cohen company. AT&T confirmed shortly afterward that it had paid Cohen a consulting fee late last year to provide “insights” into the Trump White House.

It’s unclear whether Avenatti obtained bank information as part of litigation involving Trump, Cohen and Clifford over the non-disclosure agreement Cohen negotiated. Separately, federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating the payment and Cohen’s broader business practices, and there are increasing indications that Cohen may be under financial strains. New financial filings this week, for example, show Cohen and his wife have used their apartment on New York’s Park Avenue as collateral for a troubled loan for his taxi businesses.

Renova Link

The money flows outlined by Avenatti ran largely through an account that Cohen opened at First Republic Bank in October 2016, just ahead of the U.S. presidential election. Soon after, Viktor Vekselberg -- a Russian oligarch with links to Russian President Vladimir Putin -- “caused substantial funds to be deposited into the bank account, from which Cohen made the payment” to Daniels, Avenatti said.

Vekselberg and his company, Renova Group, are among individuals and companies that have since been sanctioned by the U.S. to punish Russia for its election meddling and actions in Ukraine and Crimea.

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Avenatti said the transfers to the Cohen entity came from a Renova investment vehicle, Columbus Nova.

Describing itself as a management company, Columbus Nova said Tuesday that it hired Cohen after Trump’s inauguration to consult on potential sources of capital and investments in real estate and other ventures. Columbus Nova is solely owned and controlled by Americans, the company said in a statement.

“The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova’s engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue,” its attorney, Richard Owens, said in the statement. “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.”

Neither Vekselberg or Renova has ever had any contractual relationship with Cohen and do not own or manage Columbus Nova, a spokesman for the Russian businessman said by email.

‘Not a Payment’

An attorney for Cohen said he wouldn’t discuss the $500,000 from Vekselberg, according to a tweet posted by a reporter. “I understand the shorthand you’re using, but it wasn’t a payment,” the attorney, Steve Ryan, told Natasha Bertrand of the Atlantic.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has questioned Vekselberg about the payments into Cohen’s account, CNN reported Tuesday.

Reached by telephone half an hour after Avenatti posted the information, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said he doubted the report’s veracity.

“I have no idea how he would know that. I have no reason to believe that anything he says is true,” Giuliani said. “I consider him now sort of a guy who books for ‘Saturday Night Live.’ The guy is a pretty unsuccessful lawyer -- can’t remember a case he’s ever had that meant anything -- and I think he’s desperate for money.”

Avenatti also said Cohen submitted false information to First Republic when opening the account for Essential Consultants, a Delaware LLC that was established by Cohen and has been previously identified as the source of the hush payment to Clifford.

A representative for First Republic declined to comment.

‘Lot of Explaining’

Besides Columbus Nova, Avenatti named three companies that he said transferred money into the account -- Novartis, AT&T and Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd.

According to Avenatti, Novartis made four payments of $99,980 into the account in late 2017 and early 2018. Following the payments, totaling just under $400,000, Trump had a dinner meeting with Novartis’s incoming CEO ahead of a World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Avenatti said.

A Novartis spokesman said he was looking into the issue but added that any agreements with Essential were entered into before the arrival of the company’s current CEO in February and have expired.

Korea Aerospace, which is seeking to sell its planes in the U.S., hired Cohen’s entity for advice on local accounting standards and sent a single payment of $150,000 when the work was completed, a spokesman confirmed Wednesday, adding the contract was legal.

Avenatti cited four payments from AT&T of $50,000 apiece, in late 2017 and early 2018, without further explanation.

AT&T announced just before the election that it would merge with Time Warner Inc. Trump regularly criticized Time Warner’s CNN unit on the campaign trail and threatened to derail any merger.

Essential Consultants “was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration. They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017,” AT&T said in a statement.

Around that time, the Justice Department sued to block the merger. After a six-week trial, a judge is now weighing whether to approve the deal or block it.

Personal Accounts

Although Avenatti didn’t offer an explanation for all the payments or the intended purposes of the funds, he also drew attention to what appeared to be Cohen’s personal accounts. The longtime Trump lawyer opened two accounts at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC and deposited three checks totaling just over $1 million that came from the Essential Consultants account, Avenatti said.

Avenatti said the transactions last summer appeared to have no “legitimate business purpose.” Cohen has noted in court that Trump was one of three legal clients he had last year, but that he had 10 other clients for whom he did unspecified business work.

Last month, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Russians including Vekselberg and his Renova Group that were intended to punish Russia for actions in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, and for attempts to subvert Western democracies.

Vekselberg, who founded Renova in 1990 and accumulated interests in Russia’s oil, gas and aluminum industries, is Russia’s fifth-richest person with a net worth of $15.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

In 2016, Russian prosecutors raided Renova’s offices and arrested two associates of Vekselberg, including the company’s chief managing director and another top executive, over allegations involving bribes to officials connected to a power generation project in Russia.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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