Francis Moriarty: Mueller's Cohen probe on the meter

WILLIAMSTOWN — It has become obvious that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation needs the input of a cab driver. Having driven a taxi during an earlier life, I offer my view.

In fact, I suspect that Mueller has already recognized this need as he looks into possible links between Russia and Donald J. Trump, a former property developer in Manhattan now working out of the White House. This may be one reason why Mueller hived off part of his inquiry to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, which is experienced in New York City's politics.

Mueller's search warrants for the home, offices and safety deposit box of Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime fixer and personal attorney, have produced a trove of material and enough cell phones to stock an electronics shop. Eventually we may learn the contents, but meanwhile, here's my view:

It's possible that the Mueller inquiry might have had things backwards, at least at the start. Given Cohen's past, it's possible that Russia was as much a target of opportunity for Cohen the fixer as Cohen was a potential link for the Russians.

When viewed from inside a car with a taxi license, it looks like money might not have been laundered for the sole aim of funding a political campaign. Rather, the campaign itself could have offered an ideal vehicle for the laundering of money. This is an opportunity that someone like Michael Cohen, who reportedly possesses some 200 taxi medallions and has Russian links, would not miss.

Taxis as washing machines

A definition: Medallions turn otherwise ordinary cars into four-wheeled piggy banks that roll around day and night collecting and dispensing cash. A taxi company, when run in an unsavory manner, is not unlike vending machines, cheap hotels or other cash-based businesses where bookkeeping may be spotty at best. Taxi drivers are required to keep a log (waybill) of their pickups and drop-offs but these are often, I can attest, dubious reconstructions.

Cities handle taxi medallions differently. Some sell medallions, allowing them to be tradable or inheritable. It's not uncommon for medallions to fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sometimes medallions belong to the city and are auctioned off or distributed by waiting lists. Sometimes a medallion owner must be a driver, but sometimes not.

In larger taxi companies, a car usually serves two shifts daily. Each driver must pay "gates" to use the taxi. If gates are $100, split evenly between the medallion owner and the company, an owner might make $100 a day without driving. That's $3,000 a month. If Cohen owns 200 medallions, you do the math.

Each taxi can each be viewed as a washing machine with wheels. Taken together, they can form a laundromat for washing cash — if someone has the need.

Now imagine a political campaign running up millions in expenses, an enterprise collecting and dispensing cash for numerous purposes including, hypothetically, payoffs. A presidential campaign is, metaphorically, the mother of taxi companies, a 24/7 vehicle with the meter always running. Trump's campaign was an opportunity waiting to happen, something an opportunist like Cohen would not miss.

The taxi trade is just one business in which Michael Cohen has earned money and made connections.

One might ask, what kind of lawyer gets into the taxi trade and comes to the attention of Trump?

We can thank Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein of WNYC for help provide some answers in their series "Trump, Inc." These are award-winning journalists who rely on shoe leather, public records, critical intelligence and a deep understanding of their city. Their recent article, "The Company Michael Cohen Kept", is part of a series published by the non-profit investigative journalism newsroom ProPublica.

In it, they trace Cohen's work from a rundown taxi garage in Queens, where his law office was once housed, to a "desolate stretch near a shuttered podiatrist's office" in Brooklyn where Cohen had incorporated a business involving large quantities of medical claims: "Separately, he represented more than 100 plaintiffs who claimed they were injured in auto collisions."

They also found that "many of the people who crossed paths with Cohen when he worked in Queens and Brooklyn were disciplined, disbarred, accused or convicted of crimes."

The reporters quote court papers saying that Cohen is now being investigated by authorities for possible fraud and showing a "lack of truthfulness."

Links back to USSR

Marritz and Bernstein detail Cohen's longstanding ties with people from the former Soviet Union. Remember that rundown taxi garage in Queens? "It was," they say, "the headquarters of the New York branch of the empire of Simon Garber, a Soviet emigre who also has had cab companies in Chicago and Moscow.

"Over the years, Garber has been convicted of assault in New York, arrested for battery in Miami and pleaded guilty in New Jersey to charges of criminal mischief involving him breaking into three neighbors' homes, shattering glass doors, smearing blood all over and taking a shower. In Chicago, his taxi fleet included wrecked vehicles with illegally laundered titles."

President Trump has admitted that Cohen paid hush money to Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who claims she and Trump had an affair.

We are often known, as mother warned, by the company we keep, and the Trump-o-meter is running.

Francis Moriarty is a regular columnist for the Berkshire Eagle. He drove a taxi in San Francisco.


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