The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Treasury inspector general launches probe into possible leak of Michael Cohen’s banking records

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)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Treasury Department’s inspector general is investigating whether confidential banking information involving a company controlled by President Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen was leaked, a spokesman said.

Detailed claims about the company’s banking history were made public Tuesday by Michael Avenatti, an attorney for Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star who was paid $130,000 by Cohen’s company shortly before the 2016 election to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump.

Inspector General Eric Thorson, who operates independently of the agency’s political leadership, launched the probe in response to media reports, said counsel Rich Delmar. It might — or might not — answer a question that was the source of much speculation Wednesday: How did Avenatti come into hard-to-get information touching on some of the most sensitive issues before the White House, including the probe led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III?

On Twitter, Avenatti circulated a dossier purporting to show that Cohen received $500,000 last year from Columbus Nova, the U.S.-based affiliate of Renova Group, a company founded by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg. The business magnate attended Trump’s inauguration and has reportedly been interviewed by Mueller’s prosecutors. Columbus Nova confirmed the payment, saying it was for consulting on investments and other matters, but denied any involvement by Vekselberg.

Avenatti’s dossier also alleged that Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants, received payments from others with business considerations before the federal government, including telecommunications giant AT&T, aircraft manufacturer Korea Aerospace Industries and pharmaceutical company Novartis. All three companies subsequently confirmed the payments.

A fixture on cable television, Avenatti has been calling on the Treasury Department for weeks to release reports of unusual banking transactions by Cohen. He came up with a social media hashtag: #releasetheSAR, using the acronym for a Suspicious Activity Report.

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 an interview, Avenatti declined to reveal the source of his information.

“The source or sources of our information is our work product and nobody’s business,” Avenatti said. “They can investigate all they want, but what they should be doing is releasing to the American public the three Suspicious Activity Reports filed on Michael Cohen’s account. Why are they hiding this information?”

On Tuesday night, Avenatti told CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “There’s been some criticism of our media strategy and how often I’m on CNN and how often I’ve been on your show and other networks. It’s working. It’s working in spades. Because we’re so out front on this, people send us information, people want to help our cause. People contact us with information.”

Cohen’s lawyers on Wednesday accused Avenatti of improper possession of his bank records, arguing in a court filing in New York that the Daniels attorney breached legal canon by arguing his case publicly rather than through the courts.

Federal law requires banks to file Suspicious Activity Reports on unusual transactions that might signal a crime. Experts say the information Avenatti published appears to have come from such reports.

The language in his dossier is “consistent with” wording typically found in SARs, said Daniel P. Stipano, former deputy chief counsel in the Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“This has the appearance of a leak,” Stipano said. “It shouldn’t happen, but things leak.”

It is not uncommon for journalists, lawyers and others in the public eye to receive unauthorized leaks of sensitive information, and there is nothing improper in receiving such information. But a bank employee or government official who leaks information from a SAR may be guilty of a crime, and the rule prohibiting such leaks provides for both civil and criminal penalties.

Stipano said hundreds, if not thousands, of officials in law enforcement and government have access to a database of SARs.

Banks, casinos and other entities file SARs with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to detect money laundering, terrorism financing and other illegal behavior. Officials from the network often scan and then aggregate the records so they can be accessed at a later date. They can be requested by law enforcement, bank regulators and intelligence agencies as part of investigations.

Among other things, banks are required to file SARs if the transaction “has no business or apparent lawful purpose or is not the type of transaction that the particular customer would normally be expected to engage in, and the bank knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction after examining the available facts, including the background and possible purpose of the transaction.”

A spokesman for First Republic, Cohen’s bank, declined to comment.

Thorson is a George W. Bush nominee who has served in the role since 2008.

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.