Prosecutors: Cohen’s claims of reform ‘self-serving’
NEW YORK — For weeks, Michael Cohen sought to portray himself as a man who’d found his ‘‘true north’’ after years of shady business dealings and pit-bull loyalty to President Donald Trump.
Prosecutors offered a vastly different assessment Friday of the president’s former fixer, dismissing him as a duplicitous figure who badly misplayed his hand.
In an excoriating court filing ahead of Cohen’s sentencing next week, they assailed him as a greedy opportunist who rode Trump’s coattails to wealth and is now exaggerating his level of cooperation with investigators.
They said the ‘‘pattern of deception that permeated his professional life’’ was hidden from three dozen friends and relatives who wrote letters to the court hailing Cohen as ‘‘the true meaning of a ‘mensch,’’ a ‘‘consummate patriarch’’ and a selfless servant ‘‘whose manner and bearing is reminiscent of a more gracious era.’’
‘‘After cheating the IRS for years, lying to banks and to Congress, and seeking to criminally influence the Presidential election, Cohen’s decision to plead guilty - rather than seek a pardon for his manifold crimes - does not make him a hero,’’ they wrote.
Cohen, 52, is facing the possibility of roughly four years in prison at a sentencing Dec. 12 for crimes that include tax evasion and helping to coordinate hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
His lawyers said Cohen decided to plead guilty, cooperate with the special inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and get sentenced quickly so he can put the case behind him and return to being a breadwinner for his wife of 24 years and their two college-age children.
Their campaign to portray him as a good person included collecting letters from longtime acquaintances telling how a teenage Cohen happened upon a misplaced wallet stuffed with over $1,000 and spent an hour searching for its rightful owner. Or the day Cohen chauffeured a church choir to a cemetery. And when he paid for the surgery of a housekeeper’s child who couldn’t afford it.
‘‘This is the true Michael,’’ wrote Randall D. Satin, a friend of Cohen’s for four decades.
Prosecutors told the judge they aren’t buying it.
‘‘Now he seeks extraordinary leniency — a sentence of no jail time — based principally on his rose-colored view of the seriousness of the crimes; his claims to a sympathetic personal history; and his provision of certain information to law enforcement,’’ they wrote.
Cohen was a workaday attorney specializing in negligence and malpractice with a $75,000 salary in 2007 who caught Trump’s eye when he successfully fought the board of directors at a building where he lived when they sought to remove Trump’s name from it, prosecutors said.
Soon afterward, he was hired at the Trump Organization as a special counsel to Trump, earning $500,000 annually.
Reporters came to know him as an arm-twisting advocate for Trump.
‘‘If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,’’ Cohen once told ABC News. ‘‘If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.’’
Prosecutors, in their sentencing papers, cited one snarling exchange with a Daily Beast reporter.
‘‘I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your (employer) and everybody else that you possibly know,’’ Cohen said.
On the side, Cohen invested in New York City’s taxi industry and in real estate and made high-interest loans to people in the cab business.
He has pleaded guilty to failing to report $4 million in income to the IRS from those businesses.
During the presidential campaign, Cohen worked with executives at the company that owns the National Enquirer to pay the former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, and the adult film actress Stormy Daniels not to talk to reporters about alleged sexual encounters with Trump, who says the affairs never happened.
Cohen told prosecutors Trump directed him to make the payments.
After Trump’s election, Cohen left the Trump Organization and tried to cash in on his connections.
Big companies hired him to offer ‘‘insight and access’’ to the administration. Those companies included AT&T, which paid Cohen $50,000 a month and the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which paid Cohen $1.2 million.
Prosecutors haven’t charged Cohen with doing anything criminal in connection with those deals, but they singled out the work as ‘‘hollow,’’ saying he did minimal work.
After federal authorities raided his office earlier this year, Cohen’s loyalty to Trump faded. He told ABC News that his family and country came first.
In a court filing last week, Cohen’s lawyers said he had decided to ‘‘re-point his internal compass true north toward a productive, ethical and thoroughly law abiding life.’’
‘‘He could have fought the government and continued to hold to the party line, positioning himself perhaps for a pardon or clemency, but, instead - for himself, his family, and his country - he took personal responsibility for his own wrongdoing and contributed, and is prepared to continue to contribute, to an investigation that he views as thoroughly legitimate and vital,’’ they wrote.
In their filing Friday, prosecutors said Cohen acted out of self-interest.
‘‘Any suggestion by Cohen that his meetings with law enforcement reflect a selfless and unprompted about-face are overstated,’’ the wrote.
In a separate court filing, special counsel Robert Mueller’s office had a more kind view of Cohen’s cooperation, saying he had provided useful information about attempts by Russian intermediaries to influence Trump, as well as other matters.
New York prosecutors said that while Cohen was helpful, he had declined to sign a formal cooperation agreement, which would have required him to confess any other crimes he might have committed. Cohen, they wrote, wasn’t willing to do so. They suggested only a slight reduction in his sentence for his cooperation.
David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said Cohen appears to have overplayed his hand, leading prosecutors to attack the ‘‘bastion of humanity’’ portrait offered by the defense.
‘‘It does create a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde portrayal,’’ Weinstein said.