Russian oligarch linked to Trump lawyer

WASHINGTON • A firm tied to a Russian oligarch sent US$500,000 (S$670,000) last year to an entity that United States 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 Mr Avenatti unveiled them on Twitter on Tuesday.

It is the latest twist in litigation brought by Ms Clifford, who performs as Stormy Daniels, centred on a US$130,000 payment that lawyer Michael Cohen arranged on the eve of the 2016 presidential election to secure her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Mr Trump.

In a document made public online, Mr Avenatti uncovered several corporate relationships.

Among US$4.43 million in transactions he identified as suspicious were deposits from telco AT&T and a unit of drugmaker Novartis to the Cohen firm. AT&T confirmed that it paid Mr Cohen a consulting fee last year to provide "insights" into the new administration.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating the payments and Mr Cohen's broader business practices. There are increasing signs that Mr Cohen may be under financial strain. New financial filings this week showed that he and his wife have used their apartment in New York's Park Avenue as collateral for a troubled business loan.

The money flows outlined by Mr Avenatti ran largely through an account that Mr Cohen opened at First Republic Bank in October 2016, just ahead of the presidential election.

Soon after, Mr Viktor Vekselberg - a Russian oligarch with links to President Vladimir Putin - "caused substantial funds to be deposited into the bank account, from which Cohen made the payment" to Ms Clifford, Mr Avenatti said.

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

Mr Avenatti said the transfers to the Cohen entity came from a Renova investment vehicle, Columbus Nova. Describing itself as a management firm, Columbus Nova said it hired Mr Cohen after Mr 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, it said.

"The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova's engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue," said its attorney Richard Owens. "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 Mr Vekselberg or Renova has had any contractual relationship with Mr Cohen, nor do they own or manage Columbus Nova, a spokesman said.

An attorney for Mr Cohen said he would not discuss the US$500,000 from Mr Vekselberg.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team has questioned Mr Vekselberg about the payment into Mr Cohen's account, CNN reported.

Mr Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani said he doubted Mr Avenatti's revelations. He said: "I have no idea how he would know that. I have no reason to believe that anything he says is true."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2018, with the headline 'Russian oligarch linked to Trump lawyer'. Print Edition | Subscribe