Michael Cohen’s former lawyer and the political strategist reportedly behind Donald Trump’s famous escalator descent launching his 2016 presidential campaign are working as foreign agents for a sovereign wealth fund managed by the government of Libya as it seeks to regain access to billions of dollars in assets frozen since 2011.
David Schwartz represented Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, in a criminal case regarding a “hush-money” payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal charges last fall, including one for excessive campaign contributions. Cohen drew heat from Congress for his own ties to foreign interests seeking to curry influence in the Trump administration, and the attorneys hired to represent him also have deep ties to foreign actors.
Schwartz is joined by his business partner, political strategist and lobbyist Bradley Gerstman, in their work as foreign agents for the Libyan Investment Authority effective Aug. 16, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act records obtained using OpenSecrets’ Foreign Lobby Watch tool.
The pair co-own the law firm Gerstman Schwartz LLP as well as the consulting group Gotham Government Relations. The group worked closely with Trump’s businesses since at least 2010 and received $12,000 from the Trump campaign for “event consulting” around the time his candidacy was announced. Although both firms have been active for more than a decade, this is Schwartz and Gerstman’s first foray into foreign influence operations disclosed in FARA records.
Schwartz and Gerstman along with another lobbyist at the firm, Shai Franklin, are to perform legal services related to the Libyan Investment Authority’s frozen assets and advise the authority on how to resolve the status of the investments, according to the recent FARA filings.
The Libyan Investment Authority was created in 2006 as a means of investing the profits of the country’s oil wealth. The majority of its roughly $67 billion in assets were frozen by U.N. sanctions in 2011 after a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
Last year, the authority floated the idea of appointing an independent firm to prepare an audit that could be presented to the U.N., making the case that the sanctions should be lifted.
However, the authority has been caught up in the power struggle in Libya in recent years. Its chair, Ali Mahmoud Hassan, was arrested earlier this year on charges of corruption and embezzlement, Reuters reported in February.
This latest FARA filing comes as warring Libyan factions ramp up foreign influence and lobbying operations. The U.N.-backed government that oversees the Libyan Investment Authority hired lobbyists from several firms including Mercury Public Affairs, which has ties to several Trump administration officials, after Trump reportedly expressed support for strongman Khalifa Haftar, who controls the majority of the country’s territory.
Although legal services are largely exempt from FARA disclosure requirements, quasi-political activities such as lobbying and some litigation communications services tied to international legal battles must be reported to the Justice Department.
Registration forms for both Schwartz and Gerstman lay out a $150,000 legal retainer plus $750-per-hour fees while Franklin is slated to be paid a $10,000 fee. Franklin previously registered as a foreign agent in 2013 on behalf of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, which he represented for several years.
Another attorney who represented Cohen, Stephen Ryan, registered in 2017 as a foreign agent of the Qatari government and its ambassador who attended the 2016 Trump Tower meeting the same month Cohen allegedly asked Qatar for $1 million in exchange for “insights” into the Trump administration. The firm founded by another member of Cohen’s legal team, Lanny Davis, registered as a foreign agent of Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin with ties to former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.