During an impromptu meeting at the Polo Bar in Midtown Manhattan just weeks before the 2016 election, Michael D. Cohen and Andrew Intrater struck up a conversation about investing in the taxi business.
Mr. Cohen, President Trump’s personal lawyer and longtime fixer, had made millions from his ownership of taxi medallions and other ventures in that industry. Mr. Intrater, an American private equity executive whose cousin and largest client is a Russian oligarch, was looking for new investment opportunities.
“It was really a pleasure to meet you last night,” Mr. Intrater wrote in an email to Mr. Cohen the next day. “I learned a lot about the taxi business and the possibilities which are now out there. Maybe something interesting will emerge.”
Over the next year, the two men sat together at one of Mr. Trump’s inauguration dinners along with the oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, one of the richest men in Russia; Mr. Intrater’s firm, Columbus Nova, signed Mr. Cohen to a $1 million consulting contract; and Mr. Cohen urged Mr. Intrater to attend Republican fund-raising events after the inauguration.
It was one of multiple new client relationships Mr. Cohen lined up at the dawn of the new presidency, as corporations clamored for insights into the unfamiliar terrain of Mr. Trump’s Washington. Without an official role in the White House, Mr. Cohen instead capitalized on his ties to the new administration, securing consulting deals with AT&T, Novartis and other businesses that wanted access and advice, and unsuccessfully pitching himself to others.
Columbus Nova was a surprise addition to the list: It had little business before the Trump administration. Some details of the firm’s relationship with Mr. Cohen, and the full extent of what he promised or performed, remain unclear.
But two people authorized to speak on Columbus Nova’s behalf said that Mr. Intrater was impressed with Mr. Cohen after watching a stream of wealthy donors greet him at the inauguration. Mr. Intrater, who paid $250,000 to attend the event, expected Mr. Cohen to open his Rolodex of Republican donors to recruit new deals and investors for Columbus Nova, the people said. After signing the contract with Mr. Cohen, Mr. Intrater emailed him to say, “Really looking forward to blowing it out!!”
Little in the way of deals ever materialized. Columbus Nova declined the few investments Mr. Cohen proposed — including alcohol-infused ice pops, distressed taxi medallion loans and an oil and gas operation in the United States — and Mr. Cohen was unable to provide the kind of investors Columbus Nova was seeking, according to documents and the people connected to the firm, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential. After seven months and $580,000 in payments, Columbus Nova parted ways with him.
The consulting contract, a copy of which was reviewed by The New York Times, did not specify the services Mr. Cohen was to provide. Representatives for Columbus Nova have said that Mr. Vekselberg, one of seven Kremlin-linked oligarchs who were hit with sanctions in April by the Trump administration in retaliation for Russian meddling in the 2016 election and other aggressions, has never owned the firm and had no role in its decision to hire Mr. Cohen as a consultant. Mr. Vekselberg met with Mr. Cohen multiple times, a person briefed on their discussions said. Although the purpose of those meetings is unclear, Mr. Vekselberg would have an interest in the administration’s stance on Russia.
A review of the emails and documents — as well as interviews with people connected to the men — show that Mr. Cohen and Mr. Intrater were more closely linked than previously known. And the payments Columbus Nova made to Mr. Cohen, combined with Mr. Intrater’s donations to pro-Trump causes, help explain why their dealings have drawn the attention of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel examining Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the potential flow of foreign money into the campaign.
Mr. Mueller’s investigators have interviewed Mr. Intrater twice, focusing in part on his dealings with Mr. Cohen, according to a person briefed on the interviews. At a New York-area airport earlier this year, the investigators stopped Mr. Vekselberg and sought to question him. There is no indication that Mr. Intrater or Mr. Vekselberg are suspected of wrongdoing, or that their dealings with Mr. Cohen were improper.
“Columbus Nova has cooperated with all requests for documents and information from federal authorities,” said Richard Owens, a lawyer for Mr. Intrater and the firm.
In addition to the scrutiny from Mr. Mueller, federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating Mr. Cohen for possible bank fraud and election law violations, among other matters, according to people briefed on the inquiry. Federal agents raided Mr. Cohen’s hotel room, home and office last month, raising the prospect that his communications with Mr. Trump were in the hands of federal investigators, a cause for concern for the White House.
Lawyers for Mr. Cohen and Mr. Vekselberg did not respond to requests for comment.
Columbus Nova, like several other businesses that retained Mr. Cohen as a consultant, paid him through a shell company that Mr. Cohen had previously used to send $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, a pornographic film actress who performs as Stormy Daniels, to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with Mr. Trump. (The president denies the affair.) Columbus Nova has said it had no idea that the shell company, Essential Consultants L.L.C., had been used for the payment to Ms. Clifford.
Some of the other companies that hired Mr. Cohen as a consultant, including AT&T and Novartis, have expressed regret over doing so since the arrangements came to light this month and spurred criticism for perceived influence peddling. Columbus Nova said it terminated its deal with Mr. Cohen by mutual agreement after it became clear that he was unable to devote the time necessary to recruit investors for the firm.
Mr. Cohen and Mr. Intrater both happened to be dining at the Polo Bar on October 20, 2016, with other guests when a mutual friend brought them together, the people connected to Columbus Nova said. After Mr. Trump’s surprise election victory a couple of weeks later, Mr. Intrater called Mr. Cohen to congratulate him.
They kept in touch over the next several weeks and became friendly, occasionally meeting for drinks, texting and chatting about the taxi business. They also agreed to sit together at one of the dinners on Inauguration Day in January 2017. Mr. Intrater’s $250,000 donation to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee entitled him to two tickets, which he and Mr. Vekselberg used to attend the event.
By the time of the inauguration, Mr. Intrater and Mr. Cohen were already discussing a potential consulting arrangement with Columbus Nova. But the visit to Washington, where Mr. Intrater saw Mr. Cohen shaking hands and snapping photos with wealthy real estate investors and other businessmen, sealed the deal, according to the people connected to the firm.
At the time, Mr. Vekselberg was making fewer new investments in Columbus Nova-managed funds, according to the people connected to the company, leaving Columbus Nova to recruit new investors and deals.
Documents show that Mr. Cohen presented Columbus Nova with a potential $500,000 investment in an ice pop maker that was co-founded by an old friend of his and specialized in alcohol-infused treats. Mr. Cohen also proposed an oil and gas deal in the American Southwest and a plan to buy distressed taxi medallion loans in Chicago.
While these business discussions unfolded, Mr. Cohen, a deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, solicited campaign donations from Mr. Intrater, who then attended a fund-raising dinner for the Trump Victory fund in Washington last June that Mr. Cohen helped organize. Mr. Intrater paid $35,000 for a ticket.
At the dinner, Mr. Intrater met some of the wealthy investors whom he had hired Mr. Cohen to introduce Columbus Nova to, according to the people connected to the firm. Afterward, Mr. Intrater hitched a ride back to New York on the private jet of another wealthy donor.
But Mr. Intrater wanted more: He was hoping Mr. Cohen would take him on a so-called roadshow that would link him with investors, according to the people connected to the firm. By late last summer, that had not happened, and Mr. Intrater suspended his payments to Mr. Cohen.
Still, Mr. Intrater attended a September 2017 fund-raising dinner for Mr. Trump at the famed Manhattan restaurant Le Cirque. Although many donors forked over tens of thousands of dollars or more to join the dinner, which Mr. Trump attended, Mr. Cohen provided Mr. Intrater with a complimentary ticket, the people connected to Columbus Nova said.
Over the years, Columbus Nova’s private equity funds have invested in a cross-section of media companies — including Gawker Media and Napster — as well as commercial real estate in the United States, among other things, securities filings show.
Mr. Vekselberg bought into some of the Columbus Nova-managed funds through his Russian conglomerate, the Renova Group, which operates in the energy industry and elsewhere. Renova has long been Columbus Nova’s largest client, and a securities filing referred to Columbus Nova as Renova’s “U.S.-based affiliate.”
As recently as last year, Renova Group’s Russian website featured a corporate flow chart listing Columbus Nova as its “investment fund.” The site has since been taken down.
Ever since the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Mr. Vekselberg and Renova, its investments in Columbus Nova funds have been blocked. Columbus Nova, however, is not subject to the sanctions and continues to operate.
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