Stormy Daniels’ lawyer: Novartis made $400K in ‘suspicious’ payments to Trump attorney Michael Cohen

Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti has outlined a series of “suspicious financial transactions” involving close to $400,000 in payments Novartis made to the account of Essential Consultants, which was earlier used by Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen to pay $130,000 to the adult film actress to keep her silent about allegations of an affair with the president.

According to the report, Novartis $NVS made four wire payments of $99,980 each, just under the $100,000 mark, which Avenatti noted began last fall and were wrapped in early January of this year, just weeks before soon-to-be CEO Vas Narasimhan met with Trump in Davos. [This story has been updated with new information here: Novartis now says that it paid Cohen’s company $1.2M]

A spokesperson for Novartis responded to a query I sent Tuesday night, saying: “Still chasing after this – but want to clarify for your information that any agreements with Essential Consultants were entered before our current CEO taking office in February of this year and have expired.” Later, the pharma giant tried to put some additional distance between Narasimhan and the payments, which they said involved “healthcare policy matters.”

Whoever drove the deal at Novartis, getting swept up in the Daniels scandal at the height of the media tempest — days ahead of a major policy initiative on drug pricing by Trump — is extraordinarily embarrassing for the Swiss company, which still has plenty of explaining to do.

The bombshell in the report spotlighted $500,000 paid by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, with close ties to Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin, after the election. According to Avenatti, that money could have been used to repay Cohen for the hush money he paid Daniels. Another $200,000 came from AT&T, which has confirmed the payments to reporters covering the story, saying it paid for “insights into understanding the new administration.” Korea Aerospace Industries paid $150,000.

“Mr.  Vekselberg  and  his  cousin  Mr.  Andrew  Intrater  routed  eight  payments  to  Mr.  Cohen  through  a  company  named  Columbus  Nova  LLC  (“Columbus”)  beginning  in  January  2017  and  continuing  until  at  least  August  2017,” states Avenatti’s report.

“Also  included  in  these  suspicious  financial  transactions  are  four  payments  in  late  2017  and  early  2018  totaling  $399,920  made  by  global  pharmaceutical  giant  Novartis  directly  to  Essential  in  four  separate  transactions  of  $99,980  each  (just  below  $100,000).

“Following  these  payments,  reports  surfaced  that  Mr.  Trump  took  a dinner  meeting  with the  incoming  CEO  of  Novartis before  Mr.  Trump’s  speech at  the  World  Economic  Forum  in  Davos,  Switzerland  in  late  January  2018.”

Avenatti included a link to a FiercePharma story on the group of executives meeting with Trump for dinner in Davos.

Overnight, Novartis execs scrambled to circle the wagons around their CEO, confirming the payments but insisting Narasimhan was never involved in the “arrangement.” Their statement:

In February 2017, Novartis entered into a one year agreement with Essential Consultants shortly after the election of President Trump focused on US healthcare policy matters. The terms were consistent with the market. The agreement expired in February 2018.

As already stated, the engagement of Essential Consultants predated Vas Narasimhan becoming Novartis CEO. Dr. Narasimhan had no involvement whatsoever with this arrangement.

Novartis was contacted in November 2017 by lawyers from the Special Counsel’s office regarding the company’s agreement with Essential Consultants. Novartis cooperated fully with the Special Counsel’s office and provided all the information requested. Novartis considers this matter closed as to itself and is not aware of any outstanding questions regarding the agreement.

Vas Narasimhan may have been still the incoming CEO at Novartis at that point in late January, but he had directed the development effort at the pharma giant for several years and had been tapped for the CEO’s job months before his meeting with Trump, along with a large group of executives. He took the CEO job at the beginning of February as CEO Joe Jimenez stepped down.

This also isn’t Novartis’ first involvement in a corruption investigation. A little more than a month ago the company agreed to pay a fine of $25 million to the SEC after company reps were accused of offering doctors in China lavish entertainment in exchange for boosting the use of Novartis’ drugs.

Novartis and the pharma industry in general have been stepping up their presence in Washington DC, intensifying lobbying efforts as Trump and his top officials in healthcare focus on a pledge to dramatically lower drug prices in the US. Trump is expected to give a speech on that very topic this Friday. I followed up with some more questions for Novartis, but haven’t heard back.

Avenatti, meanwhile, took to Twitter to call out all the companies involved in contributing to a “slush fund.”

Image: Michael Avenatti Shutterstock

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Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
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Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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