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Michael Cohen payments put spotlight on New York investment firm linked to Russian billionaire

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)

In June 2017, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal attorney, had an invitation for one of his other clients: Would he like to attend a fundraiser for Trump’s reelection?

Andrew Intrater — the chief executive of Columbus Nova, a New York-based investment management firm linked to a Russian billionaire — paid the $35,000 donation to attend the event, which also benefited the Republican National Committee.

The contribution was one of several ways that Columbus Nova and people associated with it lent support for Trump and his allies last year. It underscores how Cohen, who was seeking to raise money for the RNC as a deputy finance chairman, sought to use his new standing after Trump’s election to bolster both his finances and political clout.

Intrater also made a $250,000 donation to Trump’s inaugural committee, a contribution that gave him prime access to the January 2017 festivities. He brought with him as a guest his cousin, Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, whose conglomerate Renova Group is the biggest client of Columbus Nova.

And Columbus Nova paid Cohen $500,000 in the first half of 2017 to bring in new investors. It was among the corporations that paid Cohen at least $2.95 million in consulting fees after Trump took office.

Both Columbus Nova officials and a spokesman for Vekselberg have said that Vekselberg played no role in the hiring of Cohen.

But the Trump lawyer’s connection to Columbus Nova has put new scrutiny on the Russian investor, who made billions in the post-Soviet area in oil and gas industry. Vekselberg and Renova Group were sanctioned in April by the Treasury Department — an inclusion that surprised both his colleagues and some U.S. Russia experts, who said that he is not viewed as close to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin as others on the list.

In the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, members of Russia’s elite anticipated a thaw between Moscow and Washington

Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg popped up at President Trump's inauguration, and then again a year later, in connection to Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, federal officials working with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III questioned Vekselberg when his plane landed at a New York-area airport earlier this year and have also interviewed Intrater, the New York Times has reported.

The exact nature of Mueller’s interest in Vekselberg is unclear. As part of his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign, the special counsel has been examining whether foreign money flowed into U.S. political campaigns, according to people familiar with the probe.

A spokesman for Vekselberg did not respond to requests for comment about the special counsel investigation. Columbus Nova officials declined to comment on the report that Intrater has spoken with Mueller’s team.

Intrater declined to comment. A lawyer for Cohen did not respond to a request for comment.

Intrater and Cohen met by happenstance, according to a person familiar with their relationship. Intrater was having dinner at a Manhattan restaurant in the fall of 2016 with some friends when one of them pointed out that Cohen was also dining there. The friend introduced Cohen to Intrater, and the two stayed in touch.

After the election, Intrater, a Trump supporter, donated $250,000 to the inaugural committee so he could participate in the festivities in Washington, according to a person familiar with his decision.

Intrater gave Vekselberg an extra ticket. At one point during their time in Washington, the two cousins encountered Cohen, the person said.

Around the same time, Intrater signed Cohen to a $1 million annual contract to help find investors for Columbus Nova.

“Andy was impressed with the large number of wealthy people Cohen seemed to know,” said the person familiar with Intrater’s decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. “Michael Cohen indicated he could recruit investors for him.”

In late June 2017, Intrater — who had previously donated only $4,000 to federal candidates, according to campaign finance records — contributed $35,000 to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee for Trump’s reelection and the RNC.

But not long after, the business relationship between Intrater and Cohen ended.

Cohen had failed to identify any new investors for Columbus Nova. The company and Cohen agreed to terminate the contract and Cohen was paid only half of the $1 million their agreement had originally called for, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

Who is Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian billionaire linked to Michael Cohen?

Columbus Nova was launched as an investment management firm in 2000 by Intrater, with a commitment from Vekselberg to invest in its projects on a case-by-case basis, officials said.

The firm has declined to say how much of Vekselberg’s money it invests but confirmed that his conglomerate is its largest client. Among his investments was the media company Gawker, in which an investment fund managed by Columbus Nova invested $15 million in January 2016 on Vekselberg’s behalf, according to people familiar with the transaction.

Ilya Zaslavskiy, a former Russian energy consultant who now runs, a project studying post-Soviet oligarchs, said such investments, as well as philanthropic donations, are used by wealthy Russians to promote the Kremlin’s interests abroad.

“It’s about reputation for himself and his family and trying to establish the good life for his family here. And also about advancing the Kremlin’s goal of soft power,” said Zaslavskiy, who worked in the Russian energy industry until 2010, including for a period of time for a company controlled by Vekselberg.

The notion was rejected by a close colleague of Vekselberg’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe his thinking.

“He has global interests,” the colleague said. “He does not do this to become part of high society. Someone worth $14 billion is part of global society already.”

Over the years, Columbus Nova has been described as closely associated with Vekselberg. A 2018 SEC filing by a company whose directors included a Columbus Nova partner described the firm as “the U.S.-based investment and operating arm of Mr. Vekselberg’s Renova Group of companies.”

The website of Vekselberg’s company, Renova Group, listed Columbus Nova as one of its companies in 2017, according to pages that have since been archived. The website was recently pulled down, replaced by a message that it was under construction.

However, Columbus Nova has said it is owned by Americans and has never been controlled by the Renova Group or Vekselberg.

Interviews with people who have worked with Columbus Nova have said they perceived the firm’s relationship with Vekselberg to be a close one, regardless of the company’s ownership structure.

“It was obvious that when you entered Columbus Nova’s office you were entering Viktor Vekselberg’s New York office,” said an American businessman who visited the firm several times six or seven years ago and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions.

“The conversations there were primarily about placing Vekselberg’s money, though they were also seeking other money for investment,” he added.

Vekselberg started building his corporate empire in the years that Boris Yeltsin was Russian president, after the fall of the Soviet Union. He founded Renova Asset Management Co. in 1990 and made money selling used copper cables and in the aluminum business.

He had huge success with his investments in the oil and gas industry. Vekselberg and a handful of Russian partners — Alfa, Access and Renova — initially bought 40 percent of a state-owned oil firm for just $810 million during the post-Soviet privatization wave. Later, after they had acquired the entire company, BP paid them $7.8 billion for half the enterprise.

The company then became TNK-BP, a lucrative joint venture that threw off massive dividends. Renova’s share came to $4.5 billion by 2008 — equal to $75 million a month at that time. After the marriage of the Russian partners and BP turned rancorous, the Russian state oil company Rosneft paid $55 billion to acquire all of TNK-BP in 2013; Renova’s share amounted to roughly $7 billion.

Among Vekselberg’s main assets now are two Swiss-based firms: Sulzer, a maker of pumps, and Oerlikon, a maker of high-tech products and components.

In April, Vekselberg was one of seven Russian business executives who was sanctioned by the U.S. government after the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K. that Western intelligence officials have blamed on Russia.

“Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities,” the Treasury Department said in a statement at the time.

The move surprised Vekselberg.

“He is not part of Putin’s inner circle. That’s why when he was sanctioned he was shocked,” said Vekselberg’s colleague, who has spoken to him recently.

Some Russia experts in the United States were also taken aback by Vekselberg’s inclusion on the list, noting that he has demonstrated an interest in building ties between the United States and Russia.

“I was shocked when I saw his name there,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow under President Barack Obama. “I think generally sanctions are the right thing to do. But I know lots of people who work with him. He would not make my top 10, top 20 or top 30.”

The Treasury Department declined to comment.

Associates of Vekselberg’s in Russia said he is probably displeased by the new wave of attention triggered by the news about Columbus Nova’s relationship with Cohen.

“Vekselberg is not very public; he does not like to be on TV, or give interviews, or speeches at events,” said Sergey Aleksashenko, a former deputy finance minister and former deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank. “Like all Russian oligarchs, he needs to keep good relations with Putin and the government. He’s not crazy — he is very cautious.”

Alice Crites and Tom Hamburger in Washington and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.