Working from a 24th-floor office in Manhattan’s Trump Tower, Felix Sater spent years trying to line up lucrative deals in the United States, Russia and elsewhere in Europe with Donald Trump’s real estate organization.
For much of that time, according to court records and U.S. officials, Sater also worked as a confidential informant for the FBI, and — he says — U.S. intelligence.
“I was building Trump Towers by day and hunting Bin Laden by night,” Sater, now 50, told the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview from New York.
As managing director of Bayrock Group LLC, a real estate development firm, the Russian-born businessman met Trump in 2003, court records show, when Trump was looking to expand his business and branding organization around the globe.
Although few projects were built, Sater worked on hotel and condominium deals with the Trump Organization through 2010 in New York, Florida, Arizona, London, Moscow and elsewhere even as he secretly helped the FBI infiltrate and take down organized crime figures, according to court records.
Trump has denied they were close, but Sater had access to Trump’s inner circle as recently as this year.
In January, Sater and Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, met in a New York hotel with a Ukrainian lawmaker who asked them to bring the White House a pro-Russian peace deal for Ukraine.
“I was only trying to stop a war,” Sater said of his role linking the lawmaker, Andrei Artemenko, with Cohen.
The New York Times, which first reported the meeting, quoted Cohen as saying he gave the envelope containing the proposal to Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security advisor, but Cohen now denies delivering it.
“I acknowledge that the brief meeting took place, but emphatically deny discussing this topic or delivering any documents to the White House and/or General Flynn,” Cohen wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times.
The White House has “no record” of receiving the Ukraine peace proposal, according to spokesman Michael Short. He also said that “no one in the White House” had discussed the matter with Cohen.
There is no question that Sater led a double life during the years he worked with the Trump Organization.
In 1998, Sater pleaded guilty to a federal charge of racketeering for his role in a Mafia-linked $40-million stock fraud scheme. He quickly cut a deal, agreeing to become a secret FBI informant in hopes of getting a lenient sentence.
Court records were sealed to protect Sater’s identity, so his role in the fraud case stayed secret for a decade while he was at Bayrock. After a court hearing in 2009, he was fined $25,000 but was not sent to prison or ordered to pay restitution.
At his sentencing hearing, several FBI officials vouched for Sater’s help. He got his biggest endorsement in January 2015 when Loretta Lynch was asked at her Senate confirmation hearing for U.S. attorney general why court records had been sealed in the fraud case.
Sater had secretly worked with federal prosecutors and the FBI for more than 10 years, “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” — the Mafia — according to Lynch, who had served as U.S. attorney in the Eastern District in New York.
Sater’s lawyer, Robert W. Wolf, gives his client more credit, saying he worked with “numerous U.S. national security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.” Sater says he helped hunt “America’s greatest enemies” in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
There is no independent verification of those assertions.
Former CIA officials who worked in counter-terrorism and Russian affairs said they never heard of Sater and doubt his cloak-and-dagger claims of chasing down terrorists.
“We should not take this guy’s statements at face value,” said Glenn Carle, a former CIA operations officer who retired in 2007. “There are all sorts of people who seek protection by wrapping themselves in the American and CIA flags.”
A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.
Sater’s business history with Trump is well documented, however.
In their first deal, in November 2003, the Trump Organization and Bayrock announced plans to build a 19-story condominium tower and hotel complex in Phoenix.
Residents who objected that the project was too large forced a citywide referendum to block construction, however. Trump pulled out in 2005, and the project was never built.
The following year, Bayrock licensed Trump’s name and began construction of a 24-story hotel and condominium complex in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The project ran out of money and was hit by lawsuits and claims of fraud by buyers. Trump was dropped from the lawsuits after asserting he was not the developer and was not responsible for the problems.
The Trump Organization and Bayrock developed the Trump Soho hotel in Lower Manhattan starting in 2006. Sater appeared with Trump at a launch party in September 2007.
Sater left Bayrock the following year after news stories first revealed his criminal record. He continued to work with the Trump Organization — he had business cards that called him a “special advisor” and kept his offices in Trump Tower — trying to put together real estate deals through 2010.
Sater said he had signed several development deals with Trump’s company, including one for a Trump Tower in Moscow, but none were built.
“We were looking to do deals in various capitals, in London, Paris — we had no special affinity for Moscow,” Sater said in the interview.
Sater says he was still pitching deals to the Trump Organization in 2015. A lawyer for the Trump company did not return requests for comment.
In a sworn deposition in 2013 in a civil suit, Trump said he barely knew Sater.
“If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like,” Trump said.
Short, the White House spokesman, declined to comment on Sater’s role as an FBI informant or on Trump’s relationship with him.
Born in Russia, Sater grew up in Brighton Beach, a gritty Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large Russian community, after his father emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1972.
Sater became a licensed stock broker, but he stabbed a man with a broken margarita glass during a bar fight in 1991. He was convicted of felony assault and served about a year in prison.
During his years as an informant, Sater sometimes confided in his rabbi — who thought he was making up his exploits.
“I thought perhaps he had watched too many James Bond movies and read one too many Tom Clancy novels,” Rabbi Shalom M. Paltiel said in a 2014 speech naming Sater “man of the year” for his service to his Chabad congregation on Long Island.
Paltiel said Sater then invited him to a secret thank-you ceremony at a federal building in New York.
“To my amazement I see dozens of U.S. intelligence officers, from all the various three-letter intelligence agencies of this country, including some I had never even known existed,” Paltiel said in a video posted by Sater. Their accounts were “more fantastic and more unbelievable than anything he’d been telling me.”
Several lawsuits paint a less flattering portrait of Sater, however.
In one, Ernest Mennes, an investor in the Phoenix project, sued Sater and Bayrock in Arizona Superior Court in 2007, alleging that they had skimmed an unspecified amount of money and that Sater had threatened to kill Mennes if he disclosed Sater’s criminal record.
Sater angrily denied the allegation. “You think I’m doing Trump Towers [deals] and telling someone I would … cut their legs off? Are you crazy?” he said in the interview
Bayrock settled the case for an undisclosed amount. In an interview, Mennes praised Sater, saying he “served the U.S. well” and was “a great partner.”