The Slatest

Firm That Denied Its Cohen Payment Was Connected to Russian Billionaire Turns Out to Be Super-Connected to Russian Billionaire

Viktor Vekselberg gestures with his right hand while speaking to Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin and Viktor Vekselberg in Sochi, Russia on Oct. 11, 2014.
Aleksey Nikolkskyi/AFP/Getty Images

Soon after Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti issued documents purporting to show that an U.S. investment firm with ties to Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg had given $500,000 to Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen, the firm—Columbus Nova—acknowledged the payment but denied that Vekselberg had been involved. Said the firm’s statement, in part:

Columbus Nova is an investment management company solely owned and controlled by Americans. After the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures. Reports today that Viktor Vekselberg used Columbus Nova as a conduit for payments to Michael Cohen are false. The claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved in or provided any funding for Columbus Nova’s engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue. Neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone else other than Columbus Nova’s owners were involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement. 

Several further reports indicate that Columbus Nova’s statement about its ownership, while it may be technically true, is quite misleading:

• Think Progress noted that, before being taken offline, the website of Vekselberg’s Renova Group holding company listed Columbus Nova as one of the Renova Group’s subsidiaries.

• CNN noted that a version of Columbus Nova’s website that has also since been taken down described Columbus Nova as a “US investment vehicle for the Renova Group.”

• Mother Jones noted that a 2006 SEC form signed by Columbus Nova’s CEO—who is Vekselberg’s cousin—called the company “the U.S.-based affiliate of the Renova Group.”

• A Forbes writer noticed that a former Columbus Nova executive describes the company as “a family office” on his new firm’s website. Forbes explains that “family office” is investment jargon for a firm that has a single job: Managing the wealth of one individual or family. That family might not technically own the firm or make its decisions on a day-to-day basis, but it ultimately controls and bankrolls it.

A current Columbus Nova executive also used the term “family office,” and seemingly alluded to Vekselberg as the head of that family, in an impromptu interview with the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson; the firm’s initial statement confirmed earlier New York Times reporting that Vekselberg is at the least its “biggest” client. As Davidson points out, this fact casts another part of the firm’s statement—its claim that Cohen helped it locate investment opportunities and sources of capital—in a ridiculous light. Vekselberg is worth an estimated $13.5 billion and controls a global portfolio of companies; Michael Cohen is a former personal-injury lawyer and taxi entrepreneur who owns a few townhouses.

This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that Columbus Nova’s payment to Cohen had anything to do with Russian election sabotage, Stormy Daniels, or Vekselberg’s attendance at Trump’s inauguration. It does mean that whatever Columbus Nova was actually paying Cohen for seems to be something they’re embarrassed by.