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FBI agents said to be probing Michael Cohen’s deal with Korean firm

Michael Cohen leaves federal court in New York on April 26. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen leaves federal court in New York on April 26. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

A California man who says he served as a translator last year for Michael Cohen and a South Korean aerospace firm that paid Cohen’s company $150,000 said Tuesday that FBI agents recently interviewed him.

Mark Ko said in an email to The Washington Post that he spoke with the FBI about the arrangement “a few weeks ago.” Ko declined to provide details about investigators’ inquiries and said he was unsure whether the agents were part of the probe led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Ko’s statement is the first indication that federal authorities are examining Cohen’s contract with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) — one of several companies with substantial business before the U.S. government that hired Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney and longtime legal fixer, after the 2016 election.

When Stormy Daniels's lawyer tweeted out bank records for President Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, a whole new web of connections was unfurled. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Brendan McDermid/The Washington Post)

It also suggests the investigation into the payments has continued into recent weeks. Novartis and AT&T, which paid Cohen’s company $1.2 million and $600,000, respectively, have said they were contacted late last year by law enforcement officials working with Mueller, who is probing alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Since the payments came to light last week, Novartis and AT&T expressed regret and acknowledged that they hired Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants, because of his access to the Trump administration.

KAI, by contrast, has defended its decision to hire Cohen’s company. A spokesman, Oh Sung-keun, said last week that the firm did not know of Cohen’s connection to Trump when it hired Essential Consultants, which Cohen set up shortly before Trump was elected.

Oh said the firm paid Cohen’s company for legal advice related to U.S. accounting procedures, including bookkeeping rules required under government contracts.

Here's a breakdown of the people that President Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen has dealt with and the investigations he's entangled in. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Cohen has no known experience in government accounting. A former personal injury attorney from Long Island, he was a real estate attorney and self-described fixer for the Trump Organization for ten years before striking out on his own in January 2017.

Cohen’s attorney, Stephen Ryan, did not respond to an email and phone call seeking comment.

KAI, whose majority owner is the South Korean government, is partnered with U.S.-based defense contractor Lockheed Martin in vying for a major contract to provide the U.S. Air Force with trainer jets. The contract could be worth more than $16 billion.

KAI has said the payment to Cohen’s company was not related to the bid for the trainer jet contract or another maintenance contract, worth up to $48.8 million, that it won from the U.S. Air Force in October. The firm has said its November payment to Essential Consultants marked the end of a relationship that lasted less than six months.

A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the Department of Justice. A spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin said it first learned of KAI’s contract with Cohen’s company when it came to light last week and had not been contacted by federal investigators.

Ko told The Post that his role in the business arrangement with KAI was minor, but he declined to say how he got involved. Ko runs a firm in Los Angeles called Demeter Direct that is described in state incorporation records as a retail Korean food business.

“My role as translator was small in this,” he wrote, referring questions to Cohen and KAI.

Ko said he worked with a translator and a lawyer for KAI. And he said KAI’s discussions did involve accounting.

CNN first reported Friday that Ko acknowledged receiving payments from Cohen’s company.

Oh told The Post last week that KAI had not been contacted by U.S. law enforcement officials.

“As far as I knew, Cohen did not come in direct contact with KAI team,” Oh said. “However, there might have been such contact during one of many working-level meetings that took place over the course of the consulting contract period. Mark Ko might have served as a translator between Cohen and KAI but we cannot confirm.”

KAI’s payment to Cohen’s company was first revealed on May 8 by Michael Avenatti, an attorney for Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star who was paid $130,000 shortly before the 2016 presidential election to not disclose her story of an affair with Trump.

The Daniels payment came from a bank account for Essential Consultants. The account was also used to deposit money from KAI, AT&T and Novartis, Avenatti alleged in a dossier of banking transactions he posted on Twitter.

Avenatti did not disclose how he obtained the banking records he said were registered to Cohen’s company, but experts said they appeared to be based on reports of suspicious transactions that banks are required to file with the federal government, and the Treasury Department’s Inspector General has opened an investigation into whether there was a leak.

Cohen’s attorneys have said the records were distorted and that their release created a “toxic mix of misinformation.”

On May 11, Avenatti disclosed on Twitter that he had other records: outgoing payments from Cohen’s account, to Demeter Direct.

“In 2017-18 — Why was Mr. Cohen paying Demeter Direct Inc. in Los Angeles large sums of money from his Essential Consultants LLC account?”

Ko disputed that.

“It is not ‘huge sums,’ ” Ko said, calling Avenatti’s claim “irresponsible” without clarifying how much he was paid.