Star witness: Brawling, scheming spy linked to Trump, Moscow
NEW YORK (AP) — The way Felix Sater tells it, his life is a screenplay just waiting to be written, with tales of drunken brawling, Wall Street rip-offs, international spying and a behind-the-scenes role in Donald Trump’s effort to build a skyscraper in Russia.
Sater, a Soviet emigre who befriended Trump in the 2000s and helped push the Trump Tower Moscow project during the 2016 presidential campaign, hasn’t shied away from his past on both the right and wrong sides of the law, even as he has become a key figure in the House Democrats’ investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.
Sater, 53, is due to testify in public Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee about his dealings with the Trump Organization and the Moscow discussions. That will be followed the next day by questioning behind closed doors before the House Judiciary Committee.
So just who is Felix Sater?
When he was in his late 20s, Sater served 15 months in jail and permanently lost his stockbroker’s license for stabbing a man in the face with the stem of a broken margarita glass at a Manhattan bar. They were arguing over a woman neither of them knew, Sater said.
A few years later, in 1998, Sater turned state’s evidence against New York’s Genovese and Bonanno crime families after getting caught in a $40 million pump-and-dump stock fraud, in which shady brokers drove up the price of stocks they secretly owned and then sold them, causing prices to crater and wiping out unsuspecting investors.
He has also boasted of his exploits in the spy game, joking privately that he is “the Jewish James Bond.” (He said in a recent interview that he is in frequent contact with a Hollywood screenwriter in hopes of getting a movie made about himself.)
Testifying before Congress in 2017, he claimed to have helped the government track Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida and assembled a mercenary team of ex-Russian special forces and Afghan fighters in an attempt to kill bin Laden.
He also said he helped foil plots to assassinate President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, provided the government with intelligence on North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and assisted in upending Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. financial system.
How much of that is true is unclear, since U.S. intelligence agencies don’t typically talk about such things. But former Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged some of Sater’s cooperation when asked about him at her 2015 confirmation hearing.
Lynch, the former chief federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, said Sater had provided “information crucial to national security and the conviction of over 20 individuals, including those responsible for committing massive financial fraud and members of La Cosa Nostra.”
Sater’s guilty plea in the stock case and his cooperation with the government were kept under wraps for more than a decade. The case file wasn’t made public until 2012, three years after he was sentenced to probation and a $25,000 fine. Some documents are still under seal.
Given the secrecy, Sater was able to reboot his life in 2003 as an executive at Bayrock Group LLC, a real estate development company formed by a Kazakh-born former Soviet official. Sater’s work there led to lawsuits from people who said they wouldn’t have done business with Sater if they had known about his past.
One lawsuit, brought by two former employees, alleged that Bayrock was started with backing from “oligarchs and money they stole from the Russian people” and that the company was “substantially and covertly mob-owned and operated.” The company has denied the allegations.
It was through Bayrock that Sater got to know Trump. The company moved into Trump Tower and presented Trump with a plan to build a Manhattan hotel, a $450 million, 46-story project that was completed in 2008 and originally called Trump SoHo.
Trump named Sater a senior business adviser in 2010, using him to scout out high-end real estate deals. The Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, Alan Garten, told The Associated Press in 2015 that Sater held that position for only six months.
Still, Sater lingered and was a driving force in trying to kickstart the Moscow project into the summer of 2016. Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen said Sater talked with him about having Trump visit Russia during the campaign and pitched the idea of offering Russian President Vladimir Putin a free penthouse in the planned tower as a marketing stunt to drive up the price of condos.
Sater was also involved in trying to get the White House to look at a Ukrainian peace proposal that favored Russia.
Early in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Trump critics seized on Sater’s Nov. 3, 2015, email to Cohen: “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
Sater later said he was referring to exploiting Trump’s popularity and Putin’s interest in the Moscow development to boost the project, not any attempts to influence the outcome of the election. Sater — who stood to make upwards of $100 million on the deal, which never went through — contended it was strictly business.
Sater declined an interview request for this story, saying he was busy preparing for his testimony. But on MSNBC last March, he denied trying to harm U.S. interests.
“I have risked my life to try to protect our country for over 20 years in situations and places that would make your hair stand on end,” he said. “The insinuation that I would get together with anyone, especially Russia of all places or any other country in the world, for the detriment of our country is not only insulting but laughable.”
Garten, the Trump Organization executive, said in the 2015 interview that Trump didn’t know details of Sater’s crimes.
But “if Mr. Sater was good enough for the government to work with, I see no reason why he wasn’t good enough for Mr. Trump,” Garten said.
Follow Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak