Editor's note: This article has been updated since publication.
A businessman who allegedly funneled $500,000 to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s shell company through a company linked to a Russian oligarch has been involved in a number of eyebrow-raising business deals, including a major lawsuit in which his business was represented by Donald Trump’s current lawyer, investments in Gawker and Napster, and a fraud scandal involving many millions of dollars’ worth of Chinese tilapia.
The money came in eight payments during 2017 through Columbus Nova, an investment company run by Andrew Intrater and tied to his cousin, Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg. Those payments went to the same LLC that Trump fixer Michael Cohen used to pay adult film-star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to remain quiet during the 2016 election about the affair she claims to have had with Donald Trump a decade earlier.
The payments were first disclosed by Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, in a dossier he released this week, which was then confirmed by The Daily Beast. Columbus Nova said it had “hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures.”
In a previous statement to The Daily Beast, Columbus Nova’s lawyer claimed Vekselberg did not have an ownership interest in the company. The “claim that Viktor Vekselberg was involved or provided any funding for Columbus Nova’s engagement of Michael Cohen is patently untrue,” the company said on its website.
But Columbus Nova and the Renova Group, Intrater and Vekselberg are closely linked, information from the U.S. government and from Columbus Nova’s own website reveals.
“Vekselberg is the founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Renova Group,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement announcing sanctions on Vekselberg on April 6, 2018. Securities and Exchange Commission filings from three weeks earlier described Columbus Nova as “the U.S.-based investment and operating arm of Mr. Vekselberg’s Renova Group of companies.” Columbus Nova and Renova are both linked to a number of similarly named operations, and SEC filings reveal that “Columbus Nova Investments VIII Ltd” renamed as “Renova Media Enterprise Ltd.”
Until Tuesday night, Columbus Nova had described itself on its website as “the U.S. investment vehicle for the Renova Group.” A spokesperson for Columbus Nova said the language was “colloquial” not “technical,” and that while Renova was a major Columbus Nova client it had no control or ownership over the company.
“Vekselberg is the money and barely involved [in Columbus Nova’s investments], at least in modest deal[s],” one source with an understanding of Intrater’s operations told The Daily Beast in an email. “Though I was told that Andy/he had final sign-off on investment decisions.”
That source also believed the furor around the payments was Cohen overblown. Intrater “jumped at a chance of cheap influence with the new administration and then was blindsided by the Russia hysteria,” the source said.
However, a source familiar with the matter had a decidedly different point of view. This source told The Daily Beast that Vekselberg used Intrater as a “cut-out” for his access to Cohen. After this story’s publication, Columbus Nova disputed this characterization.
NPR reported Friday that the FBI had previously warned—in a 2014 column by Special Agent in Charge Lucia Ziobro—that a foundation controlled by Vekselberg “may be a means for the Russian government to access our nation’s sensitive or classified research, development facilities and dual-use technologies with military and commercial applications.”
The payments to Cohen wouldn’t be Intrater’s first noteworthy business dealing. He and his companies have been involved in extensive litigation and opaque business operations.
In April 2011, Intrater was the chair of the audit committee and a non-executive director at HQ Sustainable Maritime Industries, a Seattle company that sold Chinese tilapia products. In press releases to investors, HQ boasted of soaring sales and stock prices. But an independent audit firm smelled something fishy when they started investigating HQ’s financials.
When the auditors asked HQ’s Chinese bank for financial statements, the bank gave auditors the runaround on an anti-fraud measure, according to a lawsuit that named Intrater as a defendant. A Chinese law firm hired to verify HQ’s Chinese tax documents found that the “5 VAT invoices are probably fake” and did not exist in official records. HQ couldn’t account for $5.5 million missing from its advertising budget. When questioned on missing funds, the company’s chief financial officer reportedly blamed some of the trouble on his inability to speak “Chinese.”
As chair of the audit committee, Intrater was privy to the investigation’s troubling discoveries, like when auditors tried contacting supposed HQ customers on a list provided by HQ CEO Norbert Sporns.
“We called customers from the updated list provided by Norbert, with no answer or numbers were not connected or not valid,” auditors wrote Intrater in an email included in the lawsuit.
On April 6, 2011, Intrater suddenly resigned from HQ with a lengthy letter describing the various ways management had allegedly tried to interfere with the audit. “I am compelled by conscience to resign,” he wrote. The following day, the New York Stock Exchange delisted HQ’s stocks.
The company’s stock prices, which had reportedly floated as high as $15, crashed to pennies on the share, and the company shuttered its offices. In his letter, Intrater blasted HQ execs for allegedly impeding the investigation, against Intrater’s best efforts.
But a lawsuit against Intrater, which was later rolled into a larger shareholder class action, accused him of “utterly and consciously disregard[ing]” his duties “with respect to the Company’s legal compliance and financial reporting requirements.”
The lawsuit implicated Intrater in the company’s alleged scheme to publish fake earnings in its press releases. The suit pointed to a 2009 Securities and Exchange Commission earnings form Intrater and other HQ directors had signed, which contained “materially false and misleading” numbers, the suit alleged. The larger class action lawsuit to which Intrater was later added as a defendant eventually reached a proposed settlement of $2.75 million, with no admission of fault from the HQ defendants.
Concurrent with the HQ suit, Intrater and Columbus Nova were embroiled in a lawsuit over an alleged fraud and embezzlement scheme. Fifth Third Bank accused Columbus Nova and another Renova-linked company of duping them into a $100 million loan based on phony documents. During the legal dispute, which stretched from 2010 to a 2017 settlement, Columbus Nova was represented by Kasowitz Benson Torres. Though the terms of the settlement do not appear public, a Columbus Nova spokesperson said Fifth Third ended up paying Columbus Nova.
The Kasowitz connection, first reported by ProPublica, is another link to Trump’s circles. The firm’s lead attorney, Marc Kasowitz, is Trump’s attorney in the ongoing investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. And in February 2017, Michael Cohen worked out of Kasowitz Benson Torres’ Manhattan offices. The previous month, Cohen’s company had received the first of the eight payments from Columbus Nova. The payments reportedly ended in August.
A Kasowitz spokesperson told ProPublica that its ties to Columbus Nova and Trump were a coincidence.
That case also highlights Columbus Nova’s apparent use of a cluster of Caribbean-based shell companies. In the Kasowitz-represented case, Columbus Nova is listed as “Columbus Nova Investments IV.”
Columbus Nova Investments IV is one of a handful of similarly named entities (including “Columbus Nova Investments”s I, II, III, and V) named in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ database on companies with holdings in the Caribbean. The first documented instance of a Columbus Nova Investments opening shop in the Caribbean was in 2000, the same year Columbus Nova was founded in New York, according to Bloomberg records. The series of Columbus Nova Investments were registered in Aruba, before moving to the Bahamas in 2004, the ICIJ records show. A Columbus Nova spokesperson said the registries were funds managed by the firm.
An ongoing lawsuit against Columbus Nova also describes the company as being based in the Caribbean. “Columbus Nova is a company formed under the laws of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas,” reads the suit, brought by a Georgia company that accuses Columbus Nova of stiffing it on $700,000.
But Columbus Nova has a history of emerging from lawsuits unscathed. In 2016 the company found itself somewhat in the spotlight when it bought a minority share in Gawker Media, the blogging network that was then doing legal battle with pro wrestler Hulk Hogan who, in turn, was receiving funding from Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump promoter Peter Thiel.
The Gawker-Columbus Nova partnership was the subject of some public skepticism. Gawker, a brash blog that had previously avoided taking on outside funding, was characterized as a risky investment. Columbus Nova, with its ties to Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, was an unexpected ally to a blog known for badgering the powerful.
Vekselberg was removed from Gawker’s dealings, appearing largely unfamiliar with the company’s reputation, a person familiar with the partnership told The Daily Beast. The billionaire only questioned Gawker’s operations when the site became involved in a controversy that reached Russian media, the person said.
Columbus Nova partner Jason Epstein, not Intrater, took the lead on the Gawker purchase, sources familiar with the deal said. Epstein was later awarded a seat on Gawker’s board. But the structure of Columbus Nova’s deal meant the company could cash in on Gawker, regardless of whether the media company lost its lawsuit to Hogan. Columbus Nova became a secured creditor for Gawker, meaning it would get paid out first should Gawker declare bankruptcy.
And when Gawker lost it all and declared bankruptcy, Columbus Nova was able to retrieve its entire $15 million investment, plus equity.
Columbus Nova has invested in other companies in dire financial straits. In 2013, the company made an undisclosed but “significant” investment in Rhapsody, a music streaming service that was seeing increasing competition from services like Spotify. Even with the investment, Rhapsody reportedly laid off approximately 15 percent of its staff, and in 2016 confusingly rebranded as Napster, an older music streaming service it had previously acquired.
And in 2015, a small branch of Sony announced that Columbus Nova had acquired it. The branch, which makes video games like H1Z1 and Everquest, soon rebranded as Daybreak.
After Renova was sanctioned last month, the gaming blog Massively Overpowered reported its ties to Daybreak. Daybreak responded that it had never been purchased by Columbus Nova, which Massively OP disputed, linking to 2015 press releases in which Daybreak explicitly described its purchase by Columbus Nova.
Daybreak responded again, this time claiming their own 2015 press release about their purchase was incorrect. “It was current executive chairman Jason Epstein, former senior managing partner of Columbus Nova that acquired Daybreak, not Columbus Nova itself. That distinction was never corrected in the past, so we are correcting that now,” the company wrote in a statement.
“Epstein purchased Daybreak (then SOE) from Sony Online Entertainment Inc. in February 2015,” Daybreak told The Daily Beast in a statement. “Mr. Epstein was a senior partner at Columbus Nova at the time he acquired the company. He left Columbus Nova in 2017 and remains the primary shareholder of Daybreak. Daybreak Game Company has no affiliation with Columbus Nova.”
Meanwhile, Columbus Nova appears to be pulling something of a similar vanishing act on Intrater. Intrater’s bio has been scrubbed from the company’s website, where it appeared as recently as May 9, the day news of its payments to Cohen broke.
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman