Monday’s FBI raid on President Trump's longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen was reportedly an attempt to seek information on not just his dealings on behalf of the president, but also a more surprising topic: Cohen’s history as a New York City cab owner.
Cohen’s foray into the taxi business is a little-known but formative chapter in his life, during which the lawyer from Long Island forged some of the core relationships, and honed some of the sharp-elbowed tactics, that would define his wide-ranging business career.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has previously sought information about many aspects of Cohen’s professional life. Investigators have asked about a failed Ukrainian ethanol company he co-owned, which sought a deal with a powerful politician, Viktor Topolov, whose associates were members of the Russian and Ukrainian underworld. Closer to home, questions have arisen about Cohen’s work with Symon Garber and Evgeny Freidman, two Soviet-born New York taxi barons who managed his fleet, two sources with knowledge of the special counsel’s inquiry told BuzzFeed News.
There is no indication that Mueller’s team is investigating Garber or Freidman for wrongdoing. One witness who was asked about them was asked about a total of 40 people or companies with ties to Cohen.
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During Monday’s raid, FBI agents searched for evidence about the taxi businesses and other matters, CNN reported. Cohen has not been charged, and he did not immediately return a message seeking comment for this story. Garber did not return a call left at Yellow Cab SLSJET Management Corp., the company he runs out of a small office in Long Island City, Queens.
Cohen followed his father-in-law into the rough-and-tumble world of New York City taxis in March 1997, registering five new cab companies, including Sir Michael Hacking Corp. and Lady Laura Hacking Corp., according to New York state business registration records.
His holdings grew. New York City records show Cohen, his wife, and his in-laws hold a stake in more than 15 colorfully named taxi companies such as Golden Child Cab Corp. and Smoochie Cab Corp. When Cohen testified before the House and Senate Intelligence committees last year, one lawmaker asked him if he used the alias “Michael Hacking” — because the lawmaker mistakenly thought “Hacking” was a surname rather than another word for taxi driver.
Cohen then entered into a series of taxi management agreements with Garber, who controlled cab companies in New York City, Chicago, and Moscow. In June 2006, Yellow Cab SLSJET agreed to pay Cohen a $69,000 monthly fee to use 30 of the medallions that every taxicab must have. In return, SLSJET would get to keep any additional profits.
New York authorities fined SLSJET about $1.6 million in 2014 for ripping off its drivers on fees to lease vehicles. It’s unclear if SLSJET was managing Cohen’s medallions during this time.
But in April 2012, Cohen tried to end the management agreements. Garber sued Cohen for breach of contract, alleging that Cohen had “manipulated” Garber’s wife into executing new contracts that would raise the management fees and that the subsequent termination of those contracts was without cause. The case was dismissed and sent into arbitration in 2013.
Today, about half of Cohen’s medallions are managed by a company run by Freidman, who was charged in 2017 with stealing $5 million that should have been paid to New York state, and who has also been charged with threatening to kill a former business partner’s family. His attorney, Patrick J. Egan, said Freidman denies the theft allegations and plans to go to trial in June. He would not comment when asked if Freidman had spoken to the special counsel.
Cohen’s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, has been in the taxi business for decades, and was charged in the early 1990s with knowingly conspiring to defraud the IRS as part of a money laundering and tax fraud scheme.
The scheme was run with an accountant named Harold Wapnick, who prosecutors said prepared false tax returns for much of the city’s taxicab industry. At one point, Wapnick was estimated to have prepared taxes for 13% of New York City’s taxi drivers. Wapnick was caught after he prepared false tax returns for an undercover investigator who was wearing a wire.
Shusterman’s indictment alleged he structured payments to avoid the IRS’s scrutiny of transactions greater than $10,000. Shusterman faced up to 10 months in prison, but he pleaded guilty in exchange for probation and a small fine. There is no evidence that he is a subject of the special counsel’s inquiry, and the two sources who were questioned about Cohen’s connections said Shusterman’s name was not raised.
Wapnick died in 2011. Shusterman did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.