A few months ago, Michael Cohen paid a courtesy call to New Jersey State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the reform-minded “feisty Jewish grandmother” who was former Gov. Jon Corzine’s lieutenant governor running mate last year.
Cohen, the district office chief of staff for Senate conference leader John Sampson and one of his most trusted aides, told Weinberg he wanted to run for a seat on the City Council in Englewood, N.J., where he had bought a house two years earlier.
But Weinberg said she was concerned about whether Cohen could fulfill the duties of a member of the Englewood Council given the demands of his job working for Sampson and shuttling between Albany and Brooklyn. Cohen reassured that his schedule working for Sampson was “flexible,” Weinberg recalled.
Then, in a follow-up e-mail conversation, Weinberg broached a rumor she had heard: that Elnatan Rudolph, a self-described protégé of Roger Stone and former councilman in the neighboring town of Teaneck, was serving as Cohen’s campaign manager.
“You know what folks around here think of Elnatan,” Weinberg says she wrote to Cohen.
“‘Absolutely not,’” Cohen responded, dismissing the rumor that Rudolph was running his campaign, Weinberg recalled. “‘My wife would kill me.’”
The speculation was natural: Cohen, 32, and Rudolph, 29, are childhood best friends, young political operatives who cut their teeth together growing up a few blocks from each other in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community before both attending Brooklyn College. Rudolph tried his hand at elected life first, moving to New Jersey at 24 and winning election to the Teaneck Town Council in May 2006. Now, Cohen is attempting to follow Rudolph’s lead, trying for an open Council seat in another heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in northern New Jersey just a three-minute car ride away.
They also, early in life, began a pattern of juggling official duties and outside interests, often straddling states, and even oceans. In college, Cohen would fly back and forth from class to Washington, D.C., working for Rep. Ed Towns, he said in a June interview with The Capitol. Rudolph, meanwhile, has said in several newspaper accounts that he has been paid to work on campaigns from the age of 13, and told the Jewish Voice and Opinion that, by the age of 25, he had worked on some 300 in the United States and Israel.
Currently, Rudolph is working as a consultant for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, whose de facto head is Sampson. The committee paid him $100,000 in June. Cohen, who hooked on with Sampson during his 2005 Brooklyn DA campaign, now works in his current $88,000-a-year job as one of Sampson’s closest aides.
But as in the past, these are not their only jobs.
While working for Sampson, Cohen in 2008 and 2009 served as a $10,000-a-year “special assistant” in the district office of New York City Council Member Mathieu Eugene of Brooklyn, while also getting paid $58,000 working on Eugene’s 2009 campaign, according to campaign finance records and City Council payroll records. (Rudolph’s current consulting firm, Cornerstone Management, earned $500 on Eugene’s campaign last year.)
Reached by phone, Eugene said he was “eager to talk” about Cohen’s role in the office but was too busy at that moment. He did not return subsequent calls seeking comment.
For the past five years, Cohen also served as a paid “consultant” for the Four Seasons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center—a well-known, for-profit organization in Sampson’s Brooklyn district that lobbies the Legislature for health care funding, according to Cohen’s ethics filings and the organization’s lobbying disclosure. (Rudolph also worked as a lobbyist for the Brooklyn nursing home in 2006, when he was on staff for Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.)
The executive director of Four Seasons did not return requests for comment about the scope of Cohen’s duties as a consultant there.
Cohen was also paid last year for work on the campaigns of Anna Lewis for Manhattan Civil Court ($2,700), Bill de Blasio for New York City Public Advocate ($7,500) and Beth Mason for the Mayor of Hoboken, N.J., according to his filing with the Legislative Ethics Commission and campaign finance records. In 2008, he worked for four other campaigns, including for Nora Anderson’s troubled New York City surrogate court campaign, and for Rep. Charlie Rangel. This year, he has been paid $18,000 to do fundraising for Sampson, according to campaign finance records.
In an interview in June after being selected as a “Rising Star” by The Capitol, Cohen discussed the outside work that Sampson allowed him to perform, saying it was all allowed as long as it did not conflict with his governmental duties.
“[Sampson] gives me the allowance to work on other campaigns as long as they don’t conflict with him,” Cohen said. “So I’ve been involved in numerous campaigns in various capacities.”
Senate Democratic spokesman Austin Shafran answered questions on Cohen’s behalf for this story.
Shafran said Cohen continues to work for Four Seasons at a rate of $1,000-a-month, helping with tasks such as overseeing their press operation and with event planning for patients. Shafran also voluntarily disclosed that late last year, Cohen attended a meeting among leaders of New York’s nursing home industry and state senators that included Sampson and a representative from Four Seasons. But Shafran said that Cohen had simply sat and observed the conference, not actively participating in any of the discussions.
Shafran said the part-time job does not conflict with Cohen’s official duties.
“It was a modest job, and there was no conflict or confluence between the Four Seasons and his role as a state employee,” Shafran said.
As for the job with Eugene, Shafran said Cohen took the position in 2008 because his wife was ill, and he needed extra income to pay medical bills. Cohen has since left the position, Shafran said.
And as for Cohen’s work on various campaigns, Shafran noted that because most of Cohen’s efforts involve producing mailers, the large sums of money paid to him—such as the $58,000 from Eugene last year—also include the printing, mailing and design costs, and are not simply payments for Cohen’s own labor.
Shafran said that Cohen had voluntarily disclosed all the outside work, which was available on his disclosure form with the Legislative Ethics Commission.
“He got multiple verbal assurances from the Legislative Ethics Commission’s executive directors that they were acceptable sources of outside income,” Shafran said.
Rudolph, meanwhile, has been holding down more than a few jobs of his own.
The son of Bruce Rudolph, the New York City Department of Design and Construction director, Elnatan won election to the Teaneck Town Council in mid-2006 at the age of 25 with the support of the Bergen County Party boss, Joseph Ferriero. Then, in January 2007, Ferriero got the then-25-year-old a $95,000-a-year job as the deputy director of the Bergen County Improvement Authority, which Rudolph held while on the Teaneck Council. (Ferriero has since been forced to step down as party boss after a mail-fraud conviction.)
As a councilman, Rudolph was involved in several m
inor controversies in Teaneck—including questions raised about whether the timeline of his votes in Brooklyn posed problems for his eligibility—and narrowly lost his Council re-election bid in 2008.
The local U.S. Attorney opened an investigation into the Bergen County Improvement Authority this summer, with the co-owner of a New Jersey mortgage company and one of his employees both admitting to colluding with the authority’s chairman to commit mortgage wire fraud.
According to their pleas, the authority staff was also complicit in pulling off a scheme to defraud banks and mortgage lenders, which occurred between 2006 and 2009. Rudolph was deputy director of the authority between early 2007 and early 2009. The chair of the authority has resigned, but no one from the authority has yet been charged with a crime.
Asked whether he was involved with the investigation, Rudolph responded by saying he left his position sometime in early 2009 and had not been contacted.
Throughout, Rudolph kept running one of his consulting firms, RWR Strategy Group, which pulled in over $965,000 in payments between 2006 and 2008 from New York campaigns alone, according to campaign finance records, including for Steve Pigeon ally Gary Parenti’s Assembly campaign and Pigeon’s political action committee. For a stretch, he also served as a part-time New York Assembly staffer (he had held another Assembly job before being elected to the Teaneck Council).
Rudolph now runs his new consulting firm, Cornerstone Management, out of a house in Teaneck. In June, he landed $100,000 of consulting work doing mailers for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
Asked how he had gotten the contract, Rudolph cited his connections with the DSCC developed while working for Sheinkopf.
“Me and Hank did a lot of work with the DSCC,” Rudolph explained.
But in an interview, Sheinkopf said he could not speak to Rudolph’s DSCC hiring, and offered scant details about why Rudolph had left his firm in November 2006, or whether it had been on good terms. He said that Rudolph had developed “other interests,” and because of this, Rudolph’s salary had been cut until he left.
According to his Teaneck Council finance disclosure and finance records, while holding down his job as councilman, Rudolph kept working the next three months for Sheinkopf while also owning shares in three separate political consulting companies, and working actively for at least one of them, RWR.
Sheinkopf, who signed on with the DSCC after the decision to hire Rudolph was made, said he played no role in and had no knowledge of how Rudolph was contracted.
“I have nothing to say about him,” Sheinkopf said.
Asked for more information, Sheinkopf repeated a phrase often said in other interviews while discussing Rudolph: “The person you should talk to is Michael Cohen.”
Several operatives familiar with Cohen and Rudolph say they are sure that Cohen played some role in Rudolph’s hiring, given their long relationship, though they cautioned that they did not have direct knowledge of the details of the payment.
After all, most of Rudolph’s New York clients have been Republicans, and Rudolph counts his other New York client this year as Republican gubernatorial candidate, Carl Paladino. According to Michael Caputo, Paladino’s spokesman, Rudolph was connected with Paladino’s campaign by Roger Stone, who is an informal advisor to Paladino and worked for the Senate Republican Campaign Committee last election cycle.
“He’s part of the whole Stone gang,” Caputo said, adding that Stone and Rudolph had worked on a campaign together in Russia.
But Rudolph denied that Cohen was responsible for his hiring, though he declined to say who had helped him sign the $100,000 deal.
Meanwhile, DSCC spokesman Eric Blankenbaker stated that, “Michael Cohen had no idea about this until presented with your inquiry.” (Cohen is a government employee, not on staff with the DSCC.) Blankenbaker also declined to talk about the circumstances of Rudolph’s hiring, calling the question “ridiculous and irrelevant” and arguing that organizations do not normally “get into the weeds with reporters about who internally recommended specific vendors.”
Political consultant Michael Oliva, who is serving as an advisor to Cohen’s Englewood Council campaign, said that the close bonds between Rudolph and Cohen from childhood still persist to some extent, but said the two still had grown somewhat apart over a variety of incidents, including Rudolph’s rumored use of unethical campaign tactics.
“Elnatan is the kind of guy who will grift you before you pay in,” Oliva said. “My experience is that he’ll do anything to win.”
Rudolph said he had not seen Cohen for several months, and that he has been in Florida working on campaigns most of the past nine months.
Cohen’s wife, Danielle–who according to her husband’s financial disclosure worked for the Lazar Group, a lobbying firm well known in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community–is apparently among those who think their relationship is no longer close. At an Englewood coffee shop one recent Monday morning, when a reporter was having a discussion with Cohen’s opponent in the Englewood City Council race and the current incumbent, the two noticed that Danielle Cohen had been sitting at a nearby table within earshot for 15 minutes.
Cohen’s wife tried unsuccessfully to get Michael Cohen to speak with the reporter on the phone. A verbal confrontation ensued between Cohen’s opponent and Cohen’s wife, with charges flying back and forth.
Several minutes afterward, Danielle Cohen got up to leave—but not before refuting one of the points she had overheard about Cohen and Rudolph’s outside business interests.
Danielle Cohen made clear that Michael Cohen and Elnatan Rudolph are no longer best friends.
“They used to be,” she said, “but when Mike found out about all the crap Elnatan was doing, that stopped.”