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Why It Matters What Shape Michael Cohen's Finances Are In


The finances of a new figure in the Russia investigation are being carefully scrutinized this week. Michael Cohen, who is President Trump's longtime personal attorney and fixer, is attracting attention for lucrative consulting deals with companies like AT&T and the Swiss drug maker Novartis. Today, the chief executive of AT&T said his company made a big mistake paying Cohen $600,000 for consultant work. The company had hoped for advice on the new Trump administration, and at the time, AT&T was planning a merger with Time Warner. It was last month that the FBI raided Cohen's office and hotel room, seizing documents and records, using a search warrant based on a referral from the Mueller team.

Now, to talk about why all this matters and how it plays into the scrutiny of Cohen, we have Jim Zarroli. Hey there, Jim.


CORNISH: So let's start with AT&T. What are they saying about their connection with Cohen?

ZARROLI: Well, the chief executive, Randall Stephenson, sent out an internal memo today which NPR obtained. He said hiring Cohen was a big mistake. He said, our company has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and our reputation has been damaged. I mean, big, blue-chip companies like AT&T just hate getting in the middle of controversies like this. It really hurts their image. Oh, and AT&T also said its head of lobbying, Bob Quinn, was stepping down - didn't give a reason. But the timing certainly suggests he was pushed out because of this controversy.

CORNISH: We talked about Cohen being the president's fixer. How else does he make a living? What more have we learned about his finances?

ZARROLI: Well, Cohen has been involved in all kinds of businesses. As a lawyer, he's helped set up, you know, medical billing companies, an acupuncture office, even an offshore casino. The New York Times reported that for a while he owned a small part of a catering hall that was said to be used by mobsters. He's done a lot of business with Ukrainian and Russian investors.

Now, he's never been accused of any crimes himself, but a lot of people he's done business with have been. His father-in-law, for instance, got in trouble over his taxes. A lot of these businesses that Cohen is involved in are privately held, so we don't know much about them. But one business we do know that he's involved with is the taxi business. And we know about that because the records suggest he's actually in a bit of financial trouble there.

CORNISH: And that's a big deal for New Yorkers - right? - as the taxi business is facing a lot of competition there from Uber and Lyft. What do we know about Cohen's investments?

ZARROLI: Well, he and his wife own more than 30 medallions. Medallions are these real plaques that are attached to cabs to let them operate in New York City. And because of the rise of Uber and Lyft, the business is hurting. I recently spoke with Robert Familant of the Progressive Credit Union, which loans a lot of monies to taxis. He says medallions have really dropped in value.

ROBERT FAMILANT: Currently if you want to buy a New York City taxi medallion, you can probably get one for about $180,000 in cash. That's down from a high of over a million dollars.

ZARROLI: And there's evidence that Cohen's taxi businesses are in some trouble. His companies owe a lot of money in back taxes in New York. CNN estimated $282,000. In Chicago, some of his medallions have been suspended because the insurance on them wasn't paid.

CORNISH: In the end, what does it matter the shape of Michael Cohen's finances?

ZARROLI: Well, we - it matters because, you know, investigators from the U.S. attorney's office have taken a lot of Cohen's financial records. And he's a new figure in the Russia investigation. He's been very close to President Trump. He knows a lot about his business dealings. So if federal officials find some kind of wrongdoing by Cohen, he could be under pressure to cooperate with the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. And that could potentially mean big - you know, big trouble for President Trump.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jim Zarroli. Jim, thank you.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
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