Justice Department investigating leak of confidential Michael Cohen bank records
Posted February 13, 2019 2:18 p.m. EST
CNN — The Justice Department is investigating the leak last year of confidential reports about Michael Cohen's personal bank records which led to revelations that the former Donald Trump lawyer was profiting by selling his access to the White House, two people familiar with the matter say.
Prosecutors with the US attorney's office in the Northern District of California are leading the criminal investigation, one of the people said, and criminal charges in the case could be announced soon.
The bank transactions of Cohen became public last May when lawyer Michael Avenatti posted a memo online outlining numerous payments to Cohen from a company linked to a Russian oligarch, pharmaceutical giant Novartis, AT&T, which owns CNN, and others.
The payments went through Essential Consultants LLC, a shell company Cohen created that he also used to make hush money payments to Avenatti's client, adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, to silence her allegations of an affair with Trump. Trump has denied the affair. At the time, Cohen's attorney alleged his bank records were illegally obtained.
CNN has reviewed documents that appear to show these payments. CNN has not independently authenticated the documents.
A spokesman for the US attorney's office declined to comment.
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Avenatti has refused to disclose the source of the information, but he repeatedly suggested the transactions were described in a suspicious activity report, or SAR. He's pointed to a Wall Street Journal story from April 2018 that said the bank Cohen used for the Daniels payment, First Republic, filed a SAR, citing a person familiar with the matter.
Banks file SARs with the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to identify transactions that raise red flags about potential criminal activity. It is illegal for banks or federal employees to reveal the identity of a SAR or its contents.
In mid-May of last year, shortly after Avenatti posted the documents online, The New Yorker published an article about an interview with a "law enforcement official" that the magazine said was the individual who leaked the Cohen SAR. The official had grown alarmed after being unable to find two important SARs on Cohen in Treasury's database, the magazine said, and was worried the information was being withheld from law enforcement. As a result, it said, the official released the remaining documents.
A Treasury spokesman said in response to the New Yorker article at the time, "Under long-standing procedures, FinCEN will limit access to certain SARs when requested by law enforcement authorities in connection with an ongoing investigation."
Richard Delmar, counsel for the Treasury Department's inspector general, said in May that the inspector general's office was opening an inquiry because of allegations that financial records were "improperly disseminated." That investigation is ongoing.
Cohen's attorneys alleged in court filings that month that Avenatti had obtained some of the information illegally. "Mr. Avenatti has published some information that appears to be from Mr. Cohen's actual bank records, and Mr. Cohen has no reason to believe that Mr. Avenatti is in lawful possession of these records," Cohen's attorneys wrote.
Avenatti fought back last year on Twitter saying, "They fail to address, let alone contradict, 99% of the statements in what we released. Among other things, they effectively concede the receipt of the $500,000 from those with Russian ties."
In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Avenatti also said the information was accurate.
"We would not have released this if we were not 100% confident in the accuracy of the information," Avenatti said. "We're highly confident in the information we released."
Cohen's attorneys also said that Avenatti, in his online post, used bank records and information belonging to two other men named about two other Michael Cohen, including a Canadian in Tanzania and another person Michael Cohen in Israel.
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But other payments Cohen received from AT&T and Novartis, among others, were confirmed as accurate. The companies acknowledged paying Cohen for consulting contracts and said they provided information to the special counsel's office investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, among other crimes, last year and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was not charged with crimes relating to the consulting payments identified by Avenatti.
The criminal investigation into the disclosure of the Cohen SARs suggests the Justice Department is stepping up scrutiny of disclosures of confidential bank records.
Prosecutors with the US attorney's office in Manhattan last year charged a senior adviser at FinCen with unlawfully disclosing to BuzzFeed News multiple SARs of individuals with ties to Trump, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates. The official has pleaded not guilty.