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Kazakh Bank Confirms It Hired Trump's Longtime Lawyer In Fight Over BTA Bank Assets

Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former head of BTA Bank, denied charges of theft and fled Kazakhstan in 2009. (file photo)
Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former head of BTA Bank, denied charges of theft and fled Kazakhstan in 2009. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- BTA Bank, the financial institution that was once Kazakhstan’s largest bank and is now at the center of a multinational legal fight, has confirmed it hired U.S. President Donald Trump's longtime lawyer to help recover assets that were allegedly laundered in the United States.

The confirmation came after Michael Cohen’s surprise revelation, made during daylong testimony on February 27 before a congressional committee that is looking into Trump’s business practices.

It is the latest development in the ongoing Kazakh fight that has touched on Trump's business circles.

Cohen, who worked for a decade as Trump's personal lawyer and "fixer," is set to begin serving a three-year prison sentence in May after pleading guilty to various charges.

During the hearing, Cohen was asked about disclosures he had made to the committee ahead of time.

As part of an effort to undermine his credibility, Representatives Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows questioned why Cohen did not disclose that he had been hired by BTA Bank in 2017.

"BTA Bank, Kazakhstan, BTA Bank, did you get money from them?" Meadows asked Cohen.

"I did," he responded.

"The purpose was because the former CEO of that bank had absconded with between $4 billion to $6 billion, and some of that money was here in the United States and they sought my assistance in terms of finding, locating that money and helping them to re-collect it," Cohen said.

Once the largest bank of Kazakhstan, with some $12 billion in assets, BTA Bank went bankrupt in 2009, and was nationalized, restructured, and then absorbed by another bank.

The former head of the bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, denied charges of theft, fled Kazakhstan in 2009, and gained asylum in Europe.

Since that time, Kazakh authorities have sought to have Ablyazov extradited to stand trial. In November, he was sentenced in absentia to life in prison by a Kazakh court for murder.

He is now a vocal opponent of President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s government and is believed to spend much of his time in France.

'Worthless' Service

Matthew L. Schwartz, a New York based lawyer for BTA Bank, confirmed Cohen's revelation.

"It is no secret that BTA Bank has been involved in litigation throughout the world for years, resulting from the multibillion dollar fraud perpetrated by its former chairman," Schwartz said in a statement to RFE/RL.

He said Cohen was hired in 2017.

"Instead, Michael Cohen did absolutely nothing of value, and BTA quickly tore up its agreement with him. Since that time, BTA has cooperated fully with all law enforcement investigations of Michael Cohen," he said.

"BTA Bank -- which is owned privately, not by the government of Kazakhstan -- did not pay Michael Cohen $900,000 for his worthless 'service,' or anything like it," he said.

Bloomberg reported that Cohen received $300,000 in all for two months of work on behalf of the bank.

The political fight over BTA Bank has turned up links to other people connected to Trump.

Some of the estimated $4 billion that was purportedly stolen from the bank was also allegedly laundered through real estate purchases in the United States and elsewhere.

BTA has claimed in court papers that some of the money was laundered by the former mayor of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. That mayor, Viktor Khrapunov, is believed to be a close associate of Ablyazov.

U.S. news reports have said that Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate businessman and convicted U.S. mobster, sold apartments in the Trump SoHo building, in Manhattan, to people close to Ablyazov. Sater was a co-developer of the SoHo building.

In his testimony, Cohen said that, contrary to Trump's past statements, Sater worked closely with Trump, and at one point had an office on the same floor in Trump's Manhattan headquarters.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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