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Exclusive: Enigmatic Attorney Says He Hired D.C. Lobbyists For Zelenskiy 'Out Of Good Will' -- And Out Of His Own Pocket

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has strongly denied being aware of Michael Cohen's lobbying work on his behalf.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has strongly denied being aware of Michael Cohen's lobbying work on his behalf.

KYIV – The enigmatic American attorney who hired a Washington lobbying firm to elevate the profile of Ukraine's newly elected president during his campaign has broken his silence, telling RFE/RL in an exclusive interview that he paid nearly $70,000 for the work out of his own pocket – and out of good will toward Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

"It was my initiative…and I was happy to do it," Marcus Cohen said of the lobbying work in an August 7 phone interview with RFE/RL from Washington.

For more than six weeks this spring, the Washington lobbying firm Signal Group Consulting, LLC, worked for Cohen, who claimed to be a representative of then-presidential candidate Zelenskiy. The firm's task, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing made public in April, was to "to elevate the profile" of the former comedian in the U.S. capital.

On July 17, Signal Group filed a disclosure report with the U.S. Justice Department outlining the work it did for Cohen on Zelenskiy's behalf. That included facilitating meetings for the candidate's then campaign chief-of-staff and an adviser with officials on Capitol Hill, the Trump administration, members of the news media, and the think tank and policy community in Washington. There was also a pricey dinner at a restaurant inside the Trump International Hotel.

For its work, Signal Group said it was paid almost $70,000 by Cohen.

The only problem is Zelenskiy vehemently denied knowing anything about the work, and Cohen, who has a small online presence and is self-employed, was nowhere to be found.

Six analysts and political consultants with decades of experience in Ukraine told RFE/RL that they had never heard of Cohen. When RFE/RL visited the Kyiv address for Cohen listed in the FARA filing, clothing boutiques and nail salons were found inside a shopping mall where the office was meant to be. Adding to the intrigue, Ukrainian news site The Babel found that the address was also listed on the Zelenskiy campaign's official website.

Svyatoslav Yurash, a lawmaker elected on Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party ticket who also worked on his presidential campaign, told RFE/RL that the address was just a mailbox with no physical office space "only used for receiving correspondence."

Zelenskiy, who took power on May 20 amid widespread frustration over the ongoing war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and anger over falling living standards, has vowed to address those issues while bringing transparency to government and "defeat[ing] the corruption that continues to persist in Ukraine."

Now, speaking exclusively with RFE/RL about the Washington lobbying work, Cohen and Zelenskiy have finally provided some explanations for the confusion surrounding it.

'I Paid For It'

They agree on at least two things: as a presidential candidate in April, Zelenskiy did not ask for professional help to elevate his profile in the United States, and he did not provide the $70,000 paid by Cohen to Signal Group for that work.

"I paid for it," Cohen said, adding that he did so "out of good will" after meeting briefly with Zelenskiy in person in Kyiv during his presidential campaign. He did not elaborate on how he came about the large sum of money.

Reached by RFE/RL on August 8 through his spokesperson in Istanbul where he is on an official state visit, Zelenskiy did not deny meeting Cohen but said he did not recall the brief encounter that the attorney remembered, which came at a busy time for the campaign.

However, the president continued, he was certain he did not request that Cohen -- or anyone else -- lobby on his behalf.

"I didn't ask anyone for anything, nobody offered me anything, I didn't pay anyone, I didn't take anything from anyone. I'm my own lobbyist," Zelenskiy said.

Cohen and Zelenskiy both said they hoped that speaking about the circumstances surrounding the lobbying effort that was conducted between April 3 and May 21 by Signal Group would put the issue to rest.

'I Watched His Show On Netflix'

According to Cohen himself and open-source information analyzed by RFE/RL, the 45-year-old was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and was a graduate of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

A former employee of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security, he has been self-employed since leaving the firm of Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A., last year. In his work, he has advised clients on compliance with U.S. and international anti-corruption measures in more than half a dozen countries.

Cohen owns homes in suburban California and rural Wyoming. With no public social media profiles, save for a bare-bones LinkedIn account, photographs of him are hard to come by. But he quipped that he is "extraordinarily good looking."

Cohen said he first heard about Zelenskiy and was introduced to his campaign chairman, Ivan Bakanov, through a friend of a friend whom he declined to identify.

That was sometime in the spring, he recalled.

"I didn't really know anything about Zelenskiy at the time," Cohen said. "I looked him up. I watched his TV show on Netflix," he added, referring to Servant of the People, the comedy series that stars Zelenskiy as a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president overnight and shares the name of his political party that won a majority in parliament in elections last month.

Besides being entertained by the comedian-turned-politician, Cohen said, he was impressed by what he read was his strong "anti-corruption stance."

Volodymyr Zelenskiy's campaign chairman Ivan Bakanov (file photo)
Volodymyr Zelenskiy's campaign chairman Ivan Bakanov (file photo)

Moreover, he said, "hearing what Ivan [Bakanov] had to say and how emphatic he was about what he and the team were hoping to do and how they were hoping to really make a positive change in Ukraine, I thought that was great. I was very impressed."

During a visit to the Zelenskiy campaign headquarters in Kyiv with Bakanov, who has since been appointed the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine, Cohen said he met the would-be president.

"Zelenskiy was upstairs and I went up there to say hi very quickly," he said.

In the short time the two were together, Cohen said he did not bring up the idea of hiring lobbyists in Washington to burnish Zelenskiy's image abroad. He said he has not seen or communicated with the Ukrainian president since.

Asked why he thought Zelenskiy had distanced himself from him, Cohen said, "he was very cognizant of his image as being an outsider and differentiating himself from the other folks in politics."

Laying Low In Washington

Cohen said he became close to Bakanov, whom he found to be smart and funny.

Bakanov did not reply to requests to comment for this story, but Signal Group executives and analysts who were invited to meetings with him, and others, including a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who wrote about meeting him in Washington, have confirmed his presence along with Cohen and detailed his time in the capital last spring.

On April 15, Bakanov flew to Washington, where Cohen said they met members of Signal Group who had set up "meet-and-greets" for the Zelenskiy campaign chairman as well as another man, senior economic adviser Oleh Dubyna.

The Zelenskiy campaign denied Dubyna's role in the campaign at the time and has stuck to that line.

Dubyna served as an adviser to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in 2002-03.

In 2007, he was appointed the head of Ukraine's state-run energy firm Naftogaz by then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who allegedly forced him to sign a controversial gas contract with Russia in 2009 under threat of being fired.

Nevertheless, Dubyna was present for every meeting Bakanov took part in, said Cohen.

Cohen described the meetings as "quiet" and said there were relatively few of them.

Bakanov and Dubyna's Washington trip ended on April 17. But before they flew back to Kyiv, they,Cohen, and around a dozen unknown others dined at the BLT Prime inside the Trump International Hotel, two blocks from the White House.

"It was sort of a coming-out event, I would say, to the West," Cohen said of their trip and the lobbying effort. "Certainly nothing dark and conspiratorial."