While President Donald Trump fumes about the expanding Russia investigation, the man in charge of the probe has been busy assembling a murderer’s row of experienced prosecutors boasting backgrounds in government corruption, fraud, cybersecurity, corporate crime, and organized crime. One of the first hires made by special counsel Robert Mueller was Andrew Weissmann, the leader of the Justice Department’s criminal fraud division. And in a curious twist, Weissmann once played a role in an unusual case—involving the Mafia, the Russian mob, and securities fraud—that is now oddly linked to Trump.
Weissmann has a reputation as a fierce prosecutor, having headed up the Justice Department’s Enron Task Force. Before that, as an assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of New York, he pursued cases targeting Mafia wise guys and Russian organized crime members.
As a prosecutor in the Eastern District, Weissmann signed a 1998 cooperation agreement between the US government and Felix Sater, a violent felon and securities trader who had pleaded guilty to financial crimes. Sater went on to become a confidential informant for the FBI and a Trump business partner. During the years in which Sater was secretly cooperating with the Feds, he was also engaging in key real estate ventures with Trump. This included scouting for deals in Russia and Eastern Europe, projects that never materialized. Trump has consistently claimed that his business empire has “nothing to do with Russia.” Yet Sater’s intriguing tale represents at least one important Russia connection for Trump.
Though Weissmann served in various positions of authority within the Eastern District, it is unclear how closely involved he was with the Sater case. A spokesman for Mueller says, “Apart from his role as an office supervisor in 1998, Mr. Weissmann does not recall any direct involvement.” Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Weissmann had a role in the Sater case. But might Weissmann, who left the Eastern District in 2002 to join the Enron probe, have any inside information—or insight—into the Trump-Sater matter and how it relates to Trump’s decades-long effort to forge ties in Russia?
The Sater episode has raised serious questions for Trump, who has denied knowing much about Sater. There are unresolved mysteries: what Sater did as a confidential informant and what Trump knew, if anything, of Sater’s criminal activity.
Sater’s business dealings with Trump appear to have faded several years ago, but he has maintained his ties to the Trump camp. In August 2016, Sater told Politico that he had visited Trump Tower the previous month, but he declined to disclose with whom he had met or the visit’s purpose, saying only that it was “confidential.” At the start of the Trump administration, Sater joined with a Ukrainian legislator and Michael Cohen, a personal lawyer for Trump, to develop a Putin-friendly Ukrainian peace plan that they presented to Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser.
Regardless of the extent of his direct involvement in the Sater case, Weissmann’s participation on Mueller’s team ought to concern Trump’s lawyers. He is an expert on financial crime and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. (He served as Mueller’s general counsel when Mueller was FBI chief.) Recently, the Justice Department fraud section he oversaw helped pursue a case against VimpelCom, a Russian telecom company registered in Bermuda with headquarters in the Netherlands that was charged with bribing an Uzbek official identified in news reports as Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the president of Uzbekistan. Weissmann’s investigators helped disentangle the extremely complicated financial chicanery of that company, which was originally headquartered in Russia.
Sater lived a strange life before encountering Trump. He was born in 1966 in what is now Russia and came of age in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. He became a licensed stockbroker, and his criminal record began in 1991, when he attacked a man with a broken margarita glass during a bar fight and ended up serving about a year on a felony assault conviction. Sater was barred from working with securities after his felony conviction, but soon he and others took over a brokerage that set about scamming customers through “pump and dump” and other stock manipulation schemes and then laundered the proceeds—more than $40 million dollars. The operation included members of various Italian crime families and the Russian mob.
In 1998, the FBI was on the trail of this criminal enterprise, but Sater had left for Russia, working there as a consultant for AT&T. He returned to the United States and surrendered himself to the FBI. A subsequent indictment named Sater as an “unindicted co-co-conspirator.”
Sater quickly cut a deal with the federal government. He signed a cooperation agreement and pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering in exchange for agreeing to provide information about his co-conspirators. The agreement noted that he faced up to 20 years in prison, at least $250,000 in fines, and up to $60 million in restitution. Sater promised to provide prosecutors “complete, truthful and accurate information” and vowed not to reveal his cooperation to anyone.
In return, the US attorney for the Eastern District agreed not to file any additional criminal charges against Sater for his “criminal activity involving fraudulent securities transactions, and the unlawful laundering and structuring of proceeds therefrom…false tax reporting…threats of violence in connection with securities transactions…and unlawful possession of firearms.” And the prosecutors agreed to recommend a reduced sentence for Sater if he held up his end of the bargain. The agreement also noted the possibility that Sater might be placed in the federal witness security program.
The agreement was signed by Sater and his lawyer, Myles Malman (who is now deceased), assistant US attorney Jonathan Sack, and Weissmann, who was listed as a supervising assistant US attorney. (Sater’s original indictment was signed by Loretta Lynch, then an assistant US attorney in the Eastern District. Lynch later served as attorney general during the Obama administration.)
Sack did not reply to a request for comment. Neither did Sater.
Sater was now an FBI informant, and he provided information that helped the bureau’s investigation of that $40 million stock scheme linked to both the Mafia and the Russian mob. In 2000, the FBI, the Justice Department, and the New York Police Department announced the indictments of 19 people involved in this caper.
Afterward, Sater continued to cooperate with the government, living a double life as a secret informant and a real estate developer. By early 2002, he was working at Bayrock, a real estate development and investment firm with offices in Trump Tower and run by Tevfik Arif, a former Soviet official from Kazakhstan.
Soon Bayrock was doing deals with Trump. In 2003, Bayrock announced it would develop with the Trump Organization a 19-story condominium tower and hotel in Phoenix. (The project never went through.) Bayrock licensed the Trump name for a hotel and condominium complex in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (That project went bust and sparked lawsuits claiming fraud.) Bayrock and Trump also developed the Trump SoHo condominium-hotel in New York City, the only Bayrock project for which Trump put up any of his own money. Sater and Trump both appeared at the launch party for this project. (The Trump SoHo deal prompted a lawsuit in which buyers of units there claimed they had been defrauded by Trump, his adult children and others. Trump and his co-defendants settled the case in 2011, agreeing to refund 90 percent of $3 million in deposits but admitting no wrongdoing.)
As Bloomberg recently reported, “During the years that Bayrock and Trump did deals together, the company was also a bridge between murky European funding and a number of projects in the US to which the president once lent his name in exchange for handsome fees…Trump testified under oath in a 2007 deposition that Bayrock brought Russian investors to his Trump Tower office to discuss deals in Moscow, and said he was pondering investing there.” In that deposition, Trump said, “It’s ridiculous that I wouldn’t be investing in Russia. Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment.”
In one court case, Sater testified he had a “friendly” relationship with Trump and often met with him and his staff to discuss deals. One of those included a project in Moscow that Sater tried to develop for Trump. And Sater testified that during this time he would visit Moscow and upon his return, “I’d come back, pop my head into Mr. Trump’s office and tell him, you know, ‘Moving forward on the Moscow deal.’ And he would say, ‘All right.’” Sater and Trump traveled in Colorado together in 2005, along with Melania Trump. Sater was working with Trump on a project in Denver that never came to be. That year, Trump wrote Arif, “I am delighted at having the opportunity to partner with Bayrock Group LLC on yet another world-class development. Moscow is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and offers the best location for a Signature Donald J. Trump development.” According to Sater, Trump asked him to squire Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. when they visited Moscow in 2006.
In December 2007, the Sater-Trump relationship hit a major bump when the New York Times revealed that Trump was in business with a man who had been accused of “conspiring with the Mafia to launder money and defraud investors.” With Sater’s status as a felon now publicly revealed, anyone doing business with him would be in a tough spot. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a project involving Sater to secure funding. The newspaper also noted that Sater, as a government informant, had become involved “in a plan to buy antiaircraft missiles on the black market for the Central Intelligence Agency.” Trump told the newspaper he knew nothing of Sater’s past.
During a deposition in an unrelated case days later, Trump insisted that he had only had “limited” interactions with Sater. “Have you severed your ties with the Bayrock Group as a result of this?” Trump was asked. He replied, “Well, I’m looking into it, because I wasn’t happy with the story.”
Trump apparently did not sever his ties to Sater. By 2010, Sater, who left Bayrock after the Times story ran, was reportedly handing out business cards bearing a Trump Organization phone number and email address and describing him as a “senior advisor to Donald Trump.” (A former Bayrock official named Jody Kriss has sued the firm charging that it engaged in money laundering and cash-skimming and stole millions from him. Bayrock has replied in court documents that he is a disgruntled employee looking to make a fast buck. A federal judge in December ruled that Kriss’s lawsuit, filed nine years ago, could proceed as a racketeering case. And McClatchey recently reported that Bayrock has been implicated in lawsuits alleging Kazakhstan money laundering.)
In 2009, after more than a decade of cooperating with prosecutors, Sater was sentenced for his racketeering conviction related to his crimes of the mid-1990s. At the sentencing hearing, four FBI agents with whom he had worked appeared on his behalf. Sater, his lawyer said, was “deserving of the full measure of leniency that this court can impose, given the extraordinary circumstances of his cooperation.”
Todd Kaminsky, an assistant US attorney and now a Democratic New York state senator, told the court that Sater “was one of the best cooperators we worked with. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. No task was too big.” FBI agent Leo Taddeo said, “Without his cooperation, it would have been a few more years where the FBI would have effectively removed La Cosa Nostra from the penny stock business.” The judge in the case, noting that Sater had already forfeited a house in the Hamptons as part of his cooperation agreement, sentenced Sater to a fine of $25,000 and no prison time. Sater’s sentence did not include any restitution.
Parts of the transcripts of Sater’s sentencing hearing were redacted before they were publicly released—perhaps because these portions included references to work he did related to national security. In 2015, at her confirmation hearings for US attorney general, Lynch noted that Sater had provided “information crucial to national security.” His lawyer, Robert Wolf, told the Los Angeles Times that Sater had worked with “numerous US national security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies” and helped pursue “America’s greatest enemies” in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Through the years Sater worked with Trump—and served as a government informant—his status as a financial criminal was hidden from public view, including from those who entered into contractual agreements with Bayrock. For Trump and the Trump Organization, Sater posed a knotty problem: Was Trump aware of Sater’s felonious and fraudulent past? Such knowledge could taint any business deal the Trump Organization made involving Bayrock and could create a legal liability.
In later years, Trump would make conflicting statements about how well he knew Sater. In a 2011 deposition, Trump acknowledged that he used to speak to Sater “for a period of time.” Yet in a 2013 deposition, Trump said, “If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.” During the presidential campaign, when Trump was asked by a reporter about Sater, he replied, “Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I’m not that familiar with him.”
The Sater affair is a winding and shadowy saga still full of secrets. This week, there was a hearing in a federal court in Brooklyn for a lawsuit aimed at unsealing records in the Sater case that could reveal details of his work as an informant and perhaps more information about his interactions with Trump.
The nature of Sater’s relationship with Trump and Trump’s inner circle is a puzzle. It may be a key part of Trump’s Russia connection—or merely a sideshow. Yet one thing is certain: Trump has not been straight about his dealings with Sater, and the Trump-Sater link remains a topic deserving of scrutiny. Should it become part of Mueller’s investigation, Weissmann would be well positioned to dig into it.
AJ Vicens contributed reporting for this story.