Meet the prominent conservative lawyer who keeps popping up in the Russia probes

Meet the prominent conservative lawyer who keeps popping up in the Russia probes
Felix Sater image via Fox News Screengrab

A prominent conservative lawyer keeps showing up in dramas central to the Trump administration and its battles with Congress — and it turns out he has intimate knowledge of Felix Sater’s intelligence work for the U.S. government while he was working with Trump.

The Moscow-born Sater is the financial criminal and violent felon who worked closely with Trump for years while simultaneously serving as a long-term informant for the FBI and other national security agencies.

In 2015 and into mid-2016, Sater pushed for the development of a Trump Tower in Moscow with his old friend Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer, while trying to enlist support from the Russian government for Trump’s campaign.

The lawyer, William A. Burck, popped up in two just-unsealed court documents in Sater’s criminal docket. Burck had not been linked to Sater before now.

Burck has also been at the center of two highly charged dramas in Washington this past year: the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the Mueller investigation. Yet his roles have gone largely unnoticed by other news organizations.

One of Burck’s clients is Don McGahn, the former White House counsel who has been subpoenaed by the House and whose testimony Trump is now trying to block by claiming executive privilege.

In the Mueller investigation, Burck’s other clients also include Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, and former advisor Steve Bannon, as well as McGahn, all of whom the House Judiciary Committee has subpoenaed.

The Burck-Sater Connection

Back in 2004, Burck was a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. He handled Sater’s case there while Sater was working with Trump and collecting intelligence for Washington about international organized crime. Now, Burck is the lawyer for McGahn, who spent 30 hours spilling the beans to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team about Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s efforts to obstruct its investigation.

Burck’s role in Sater’s case has been not publicly revealed before now. That role is especially important given the intimate knowledge Burck has of not only Sater’s activities with international crime organizations while he was working with Trump but also Sater’s relationship with the Trump Organization. That becomes evident in the letters that were just unsealed at the request of the lead reporter on this story.

These letters suggest that Burck has a deep and perhaps unique understanding of the nature of the relationship between Sater, Trump, the Trump Organization, the FBI, and Sater’s national security work. Indeed, Burck almost certainly knows what few others do about Sater’s criminal and intelligence activities and his relationship with Trump.

The time periods involved also raise a tantalizing question: Are there mysteries from the era of President George W. Bush that relate to the Mueller investigation that Sater’s case touches upon? The unsealed letters date to Bush’s presidency, when the Department of Justice was shielding Sater’s confession to stock fraud from the public. His case in Brooklyn federal court was what is known as “double sealed.” It is common for a criminal case to have a docket number and for the record to be sealed. In Sater’s case, the docket itself was sealed—completely hidden—something that evidence suggests applies to fewer than 100 cases nationwide, the vast majority of them in Brooklyn, the home to many Russian-speaking criminal enterprises.

Sater was a “cooperating witness” through September 2009, the first year of President Barack Obama’s first term.

The unsealed letters relate to Sater and his work as an FBI intelligence operative. They date from 2004 and 2005, when Burck was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. The Southern District encompasses Manhattan, where Trump Tower is located. Sater’s criminal case was on the docket in the Eastern District, which is in Brooklyn.

At that time, Sater and his firm were teaming with the Trump Organization on a number of real estate projects. His identity as an informant was a closely held secret.

Working with the FBI and Trump

Sater’s offices were in Trump Tower, just a floor or two from the Trump Organization.

Sater worked with Trump on real estate projects in Colorado, Arizona, California, Florida and New York, only a few of which were actually constructed.

Sater was also involved in efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, a project that appeared to take on new life during the 2016 presidential campaign, despite Trump’s later insistence that he had no dealings with Russia.

A key question for House investigators should be whether any of Sater’s contacts in the security services knew about the project at the time—and if so, how that might relate to the genesis of the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign.

Trump has tried to hide his connections to Sater. He testified under oath that he would not recognize Sater if they were in the same room, an obvious lie as Trump claims to have the world’s greatest memory.

In both letters to the court, Sater’s lawyer asks the judge overseeing Sater’s case to postpone his sentencing date, as Sater was in the middle of a “long-term investigation into major international criminal organizations.” The letters also mention his travel abroad with FBI agents for the investigation.

Burck is cc’d on both documents in his role as a federal prosecutor.

Sater’s lawyer spells Burck’s name as “Burke.” (Another U.S. attorney’s name is misspelled as well. Assistant U.S. attorney Eric Corngold, who handled Sater’s case at the Eastern District for several years, is rendered “Korngold.”)

FBI’s Point Man

Burck’s name on these letters indicate that from at least August 2004 to February 2005, Burck was the Southern District’s point man on Sater’s case, establishing that Burck was being kept up to speed on Sater’s highly sensitive national security work while Burck was at the Southern District, information to which few would have access.

While Burck was at the Southern District, the U.S. attorney—the prosecutor in charge of the district—was Preet Bharara, whom Trump fired not long after taking office.

Felix Sater flipped in late 1998, when Bill Clinton was president. He pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering after making millions in a mobbed-up brokerage in the 1990s. The “pump-and-dump” brokerage had made thousands of high-pressure cold calls to elderly customers, handled scam stock offerings, and laundered money. The scam involved Russian-speaking and Italian organized crime heavies, including Sater, an owner of the brokerage.

Sater’s work as a “cooperating witness”—legalese for an informant who must be available to testify at trial—spanned the Clinton and George W. Bush White House years and ended not long after Barack Obama took office, from late 1998 through 2009. Sater went to work at the real estate development firm Bayrock in Trump Tower soon after 9/11.

Loretta Lynch, who twice served as the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, described Sater’s undercover work during her 2015 confirmation hearings to become Obama’s second attorney general.

“For more than 10 years, [Sater] worked with prosecutors providing 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,” she wrote.

An assistant federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, during a closed-door federal court proceeding, praised Sater’s “cooperation of an extraordinary depth and breadth, almost unseen, at least in this United States Attorney’s office.”

While most cooperators work on one case, “Sater’s cooperation runs a gamut that is seldom seen. It involves violent organizations such as Al Qaeda, it involves foreign governments, it involves Russian organized crime” and several New York mafia families, the prosecutor declared, a transcript that was later unsealed shows.

It’s not at all clear that Sater actually achieved much as a cooperator. His lawyer, Robert Wolf, says, for example, that Sater intercepted Stinger missiles and got Osama bin Laden’s cell phone number, but those are mere claims on behalf of a known grifter.

Concealed Identity

The Justice Department and federal judges concealed Sater’s role as a top-level informant from public view while he was making business deals with Trump. His case docket was sealed and identity hidden, and even in the sealed court papers he was named as “John Doe.” Whether the double sealing was proper is being litigated in court cases by lawyer Fred Oberlander, who asserts that the handling of Sater’s case was corrupt.   Oberlander has filed a civil RICO case against Sater and Bayrock, alleging the firm was a massive money-laundering operation.

Sater’s real estate developments with Trump came at a very difficult time for the Trump Organization. U.S. banks no longer extended him credit after a 1990 reorganization of his debts in a deal negotiated with approval of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. Bankers lost well more than a billion dollars in the 1990 deal alone. Later the casino company Trump sold stock in endured a string of business bankruptcies—while paying Trump about $82 million—before going out of business.

By 2005, when the second of the newly unsealed documents is dated, Trump and Sater had worked on several projects together, in which Trump had licensed his name to buildings developed by Sater’s firm. Among these was a condominium tower in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which was never built and resulted in years of litigation alleging fraud.

The Trump SoHo, the largest Trump-Sater project, was announced later, in 2006. Trump was due 18% of the profits from that project, in which bankers and investors lost money, but Trump and others evidently made profits which disappeared into FL Group, an Icelandic finance operation.  Trump’s name has since been removed from the building. Oberlander has been trying to force courts to trace that money.

From Yale to the Southern District

William Burck’s world was far from boiler-room brokerages and caviar-and-blini restaurants favored by post-Soviet émigrés in Brighton Beach. After attending Yale for his undergraduate and legal degrees, Burck climbed quickly up the Justice Department ladder.

After Burck left the Southern District of New York in 2005, he moved to Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, where he was counsel to the head of the criminal division. Burck then jumped to the White House of George W. Bush, where he served as deputy assistant to the president and then deputy staff secretary to Kavanaugh, now a Trump-appointed Supreme Court justice.

Burck and Kavanaugh are both are seen as fiercely partisan.

After Bush left office, Burck became a corporate lawyer, eventually at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, with offices from Washington to Paris to Australia.

Burck’s clients include the scandal-plagued international soccer organization FIFA, many of whose international officials faced money laundering and racketeering charges from the Eastern District of New York in 2015. Burck worked behind the scenes to push FIFA members to cooperate with the government, according to an anonymously sourced article in The Wall Street Journal, to save the organization from collapsing under the weight of its own corruption.

One of those informants was apparently the top U.S. FIFA official, the larger-than-life Chuck Blazer, who in 2011 chose to avoid charges by cooperating with the government, then secretly recorded conversations with FIFA officials from around the world, according to the New York Daily News. Blazer rented two $18,000-a-month residential apartments in Trump Tower and one $6,000-a-month unit reportedly solely for his cats. His offices took up the entire 17th floor of the building. (Blazer’s principal attorney? The former Eastern District prosecutor who had handled Sater’s criminal case for a number of years, Eric Corngold.)

Cyprus Connection

Another major client of Burck was the corrupt FBME bank in Cyprus, which worked closely with Deutsche Bank to move money for its Russian-speaking clients.

In 2014, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) charged that FBME Bank was purposely promoting a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach to money laundering regulation compliance “to attract illicit finance business from the darkest corners of the criminal underworld.” FinCen is our government’s anti-money laundering agency. It is staffed with IRS agents who specialize in tracing illicit money flows.

BuzzFeed described FBME “as a major conduit for funds linked to terrorism, organized crime, and chemical weapons, and revealed how blue-chip Western institutions enabled its activities.”

After the Mueller investigation was launched soon after Trump was sworn in, in 2017, McGahn hired Burck as he was trying to navigate the shoals between his obligations as White House counsel and the requests of Mueller’s investigators. This may have been especially important as one of the U.S. attorneys who signed Sater’s cooperation agreement in 1998 was Andrew Weissmann, a financial fraud expert who was also on Mueller’s team.

Steering McGahn

Burck “devised the legal strategy behind McGahn’s giving more than 30 hours of testimony to the special counsel,” according to The New York Times.

McGahn’s testimony “provided investigators with a road map for an obstruction case against the president,” according to the Times.

In the midst of the Mueller investigation, Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a move that surprised many conservatives because Kavanaugh was not on the list put forward by the Federalist Society, on which Trump had said he would rely.

McGahn, as White House counsel, managed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and Burck advised him in the process.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee asked for documents related to Kavanaugh’s work in the Bush White House, Bush hired his former staffer Burck to review them.

This “Bush-lawyer-approved” document review circumvented the normal process, which typically relied on the nonpartisan National Archives to go over documents before submitting them to the Senate.

Instead, it was Burck who chose which documents of his friend and former superior in the Bush White House to turn over to the Judiciary Committee—just as he was advising McGahn on Kavanaugh’s confirmation process and also serving as McGahn’s attorney on the Mueller probe.

‘Who Is Bill Burck?’

Democrats wondered aloud about Burck’s unprecedented role in the nomination process.

“Who is Bill Burck? … This mysterious Bill Burck who is filtering these documents. … Who’s paying him?” Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked.

In the end, Burck withheld tens of thousands of documents from the committee. Many were thought to relate to Kavanaugh’s views on topics such as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the term the Bush administration used for torture, and holding people indefinitely at Guantanamo.

“Why are Republicans covering up Brett Kavanaugh’s past?” a New York Times editorial asked, specifically mentioning Burck and his role in the “most secretive and incomplete confirmation process in modern history.”

Burck turned down the chance to serve as one of Trump’s personal attorneys, the Washington Post reported. He did, however, recently agree to represent a Trump ally, Robert Kraft, an owner of the New England Patriots who is facing charges of paying for sex acts at a Florida massage parlor. The parlor was founded by a woman who has been selling access to Trump and his family at Mar-a-Lago to her Chinese clients.

There is another interesting aspect of Burck’s and Sater’s roles and the Mueller report.

Andrew McCabe, the former acting FBI director whom Trump has repeatedly denounced after becoming president, first worked in the bureau’s New York organized crime section just around the time that Sater flipped. In 2004 and 2005, when the unsealed letters were written, McCabe headed the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force in New York, which worked with the New York Police Department. (“Eurasian” in this case means crime from the former Soviet Union, including Russia and Ukraine.)

Just like Burck, McCabe would have deep knowledge of what Sater was doing with Russian-speaking crime organization leaders in Russia and former Soviet satellites including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—as well as Sater’s connection to Trump and the Trump Organization. McCabe’s role in New York in the 2000s may help explain Trump’s hostility to him, including bullying McCabe’s wife Jill.

It was McCabe who authorized the counterintelligence investigation into candidate Trump. Trump fired McCabe one day before he became eligible for a full pension.

What Burck Knows

As for Sater and Trump, it’s clear Burck knows much about who Sater is and what Sater’s work with the government entailed, and he has a much more precise understanding of the nature of Sater’s financial relationship with Trump that the U.S. public does.

Sater’s court documents and identity as an FBI cooperator were never intended to be revealed. They have only slowly been unsealed over time in a long-running drama involving various lawsuits, most prominently in Oberlander’s racketeering lawsuit. It alleges that Sater’s projects were large-scale money laundering operations involving money coming from the former Soviet Union. That case was filed under the civil provisions of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), whose criminal provisions have been used to prosecute Mafia families in Brooklyn and Manhattan and beyond.

Thus, Burck whose knowledge of Sater goes back at least 15 years, could be especially useful to both Team Bush—whose Department of Justice was responsible for Sater’s sanctioned work as an informant—and Trump.

It was the wealthy long-term informant Sater, after all, who wrote to his old friend Michael Cohen in 2015, “Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it … I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process” while he pushed for a Trump project in Moscow.

After all, there may be questions about how a highly protected informant worked to secure the Kremlin’s support for Trump’s election—and got away with it.

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