Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo called my attention to the fact that President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, once founded an ethanol business in Ukraine.
As Marshall relates, Cohen’s ethanol business was revealed as a side note in a Feb. 19 story in The New York Times. The focus of the Times story was how Cohen became an intermediary for a Ukrainian “peace plan” pitched by a renegade Ukrainian politician named Andrii Artemenko.
And if that’s not strange enough, Artemenko’s meeting with Cohen also involved Felix Sater (whose shady Mafia connections were described in my previous post).
So what was Cohen’s ethanol business?
Some answers are found in a Feb. 24 story in the English-language daily Kyiv Post by Josh Kovensky.
Michael Cohen’s ethanol business initially involved an ethanol processing plant in the town of Zolotonosha, southeast of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. To be clear, this plant was to produce bioethanol, the stuff that can power internal combustion engines, not the stuff that we like to drink (which has spawned a large black market in the Ukraine).
According to the Kyiv Post, Cohen visited the Ukraine “in the mid-2000s.” His brother, Bryan, accompanied him on the trip.
Update: Cohen told Yahoo News’s Hunter Walker that he had visited Ukraine “twice,” in “either 2003 or 2004,” because his “brother’s father-in-law lives in Kiev.”
The timing of that Ukraine trip is interesting as it relates back to Artemenko’s peace plan. In an interview with strana.ua (see English translation here), Artemenko says he has known Michael Cohen for years, ever since he founded the family ethanol business.
What Artemenko, a member of the Kyiv City Council at the time, had to do with the Zolotonosha plant isn’t clear. Update: The Cohen family has said Artemenko is full of shit.
A family ethanol business it was. The Cohens were brought into the Ukraine deal through Alex Oronov, a Ukranian-born American businessman who has invested in Ukrainian agriculture. Michael Cohen’s brother, Bryan, is married to Oronov’s daughter. Cohen’s wife is also of Ukrainian descent.
According to the Kyiv Post:
The question of the extent of Cohens’ involvement comes down to the ownership of two companies: International Ethanol of Ukraine Ltd. and Ukrethanol LLC.
The Cohen brothers founded International Ethanol in April 2006 with Oronov, according to the New York State Corporate Registry. International Ethanol does not appear in Ukrainian registries as ever having done business here, despite the company’s name and timing of its founding.
Ukrethanol acquired half of [Alex Oronov’s business] Harvest Moon in 2008, and continues to manage part of Oronov’s Ukraine business, according to financial disclosures.
Ukrethanol is registered to an address on Long Island, care of Bryan Cohen. The address belongs to a law firm that Michael Cohen is reported to have formerly worked at.
Ukrethanol LLC was founded in July 2007, just months after Michael Cohen joined the Trump Organization. Prior to that Cohen was a partner at the New York law firm of Phillips Nizer.
Interestingly, the Kyiv Post notes, it’s not clear who provided financing for the plant. (The plant’s cost estimates vary from $90 million to 110 million euros.) According to this article in Vox Ukraine, the plant has been idle for several years, as expectations of state support never materialized.
The deal to build the plant was being put together by Viktor Toplov, a former Ukrainian deputy coal minster, who was on the board of a state-owned bank. A Feb. 20 Kyiv Post story reports that Toplov acquired the ethanol plant in 2010.
There’s a interesting little note to this story. Ukrainian media reported that billionaire Vadim Novinksy was involved in the ethanol plant deal, although the Kyiv Post reported in its Feb. 20 story that it could not independently confirm that fact.
If there is a Novinsky connection to this story, that loops us back to Trump. Novinsky is a Russian who was granted Ukrainian citizenship in 2012 by former President Yanukovych. Soon thereafter, Novinsky was elected to the Ukrainian parliament as member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, worked for the Party of Regions.
Exactly what role the Cohens played in the plant isn’t clear. Did the Cohen family provide some of the financing for the ethanol plant? They sure seemed to be invested a lot of capital around that time. As Josh Marshall notes in a follow-up post, Michael Cohen his parents, his business partner, and his Ukrainian in-laws, purchased at least 11 apartment units in Trump buildings between 2001 and 2007.
In 2009, Oronov joined forces with a group of businessmen from Sweden and Ukraine to found Grain Alliance, a Ukraine farm operator. A Swedish property company bought out Harvest Moon’s agribusiness.
Grain Alliance’s annual report notes that it still does business with UkrEthanol, but it’s business has almost nothing to do with ethanol.
“When the customs procedures in Ukraine often are too complicated for the company’s U.S. suppliers of used equipment, purchases are made by a related party, UkrEthanol LLC, who has knowledge and experience to handle customs declaration,” the annual report states.