May 10, 2018

Michael Cohen's private equity connection

Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal attorney, leaves court.

Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Want to make half a million dollars without actually doing any work? Ring up the folks at Columbus Nova, and tell them you want the Michael Cohen special.

Bottom line: Some very smart money did something very foolish.

What is Columbus Nova?

Columbus Nova is an 18 year-old, New York-based private equity firm that also dabbles in venture capital via a Silicon Valley affiliate. Its more notable deals have included buying a piece of Gawker in the midst of the Hulk Hogan lawsuit.

  • The firm's structure is a bit murky, as it appears to create deal-specific investment vehicles rather than blind pools (i.e., funds). That's likely why it's not currently registered as an investment advisor with the SEC.
  • Most of its money has historically come from Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who was among those sanctioned last month by the U.S. Treasury Department.

What Columbus Nova did

The firm this week acknowledged hiring Cohen "as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures." And, apparently, he ultimately delivered exactly zero potential sources of capital or potential investments in real estate and other ventures.

  • If Columbus Nova needs an outside fundraiser, why hire Cohen rather than retain an established placement agent?
  • One argument being floated is that this was Columbus Nova trying to diversify its capital base beyond Vekselberg, and CEO Andy Intrater got a bit star-struck while meeting someone within Trump's inner circle shortly after the election. But that doesn't justify paying Cohen up-front rather than on commission. At best, it begs questions of Intrater's judgment as CEO.

Columbus Nova's statement says that Veklesberg wasn't "involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provide funding for his engagement."

Taking the former at face value, the latter is little more than PR jujitsu.

Vekselberg is the firm's primary investor, which means he's its primary source of the fees that would be used to do things like hire Cohen. Sure it might be structured via a separate LLC. Maybe even one technically funded by general partner capital (i.e., by the U.S. investment team), but that money was indirectly created via Veklesberg's investment.

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