Lawyers suing a former business partner of Donald Trump have argued in a US court that his ties to the president are reason enough to unseal records relating to the government informant’s criminal past.
Felix Sater, a Russian-born former partner with New York property developer Bayrock, worked with the Trump Organization on projects around the world, including the Trump Soho tower in Manhattan.
The documents in question date back to 1998 when Mr Sater pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering in a stock manipulation scheme that involved members of several New York mafia families.
A judge in Brooklyn federal court heard arguments on Monday to make public decades of court filings concerning Mr Sater. Lawyers for Forbes magazine and a former Bayrock executive, who has previously sued Mr Sater alleging theft, argued that records relating to his criminal past should be unsealed because of his ties to the president.
The unsealing is “important” because of “the relationship between the defendant in this case and the president of the United States”, argued John Langford, an attorney with Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, on behalf of Forbes.
Mr Trump’s business connections have drawn intense scrutiny since he announced his campaign for the presidency two years ago. But he and his organisation are not parties to the case involving the unsealing and have not been named in the litigation.
Mr Sater’s business with the Trump Organization dates back more than a decade, but he recently emerged on the political stage, reportedly attending a meeting this year with Michael Cohen, an attorney for Mr Trump, and Andrii Artemenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker, to put forward a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia.
His work as an informant has remained under seal but some details of it have been made public over the years by government officials and by Mr Sater himself.
Prosecutors have said his co-operation, over more than a decade, helped lead to the convictions of more than 20 individuals, including members of New York crime families. Loretta Lynch, the former US attorney-general, told lawmakers in advance of her confirmation that Mr Sater also provided information that was “crucial” to national security. A prosecutor said in a 2011 court filing that Mr Sater had provided US intelligence “with highly sensitive information concerning various terrorists and rogue states”.
By the mid-2000s Mr Sater had remade himself at Bayrock, which was founded by Tevfik Arif, and in 2005 he travelled with Mr Trump to Colorado to pursue a redevelopment of Denver’s Union Station. Mr Sater’s criminal history was revealed in a 2007 New York Times profile. Not long after, Mr Sater left Bayrock and it was not until 2009 that he was sentenced for the 1998 stock case.
Mr Trump, in a 2013 deposition, distanced himself from Mr Sater. “If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like,” he said.
Mr Sater was sued in 2010 by Jody Kriss, a former Bayrock finance director, who alleged he had been cheated. On Monday Richard Lerner, a lawyer representing Mr Kriss and his lawyer, said it was necessary to unseal a pre-sentencing report because he alleged it would reveal that the US government knew Mr Sater had become involved with Bayrock but failed in its obligation to notify his business associates of his criminal past.
Evan Norris, a prosecutor, opposed unsealing the pre-sentence report, saying the safety of Mr Sater and his family was “still a factor”. He said the government was asking to keep two documents under seal and redact sections of several dozen others. But he and Mr Sater’s attorney jointly agreed that 80 per cent of the court filings could be made public.
Judge Pamela Chen, who was appointed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to write a report recommending whether to unseal certain documents, did not rule after the three-hour hearing. Instead, she ordered reporters out of the courtroom to continue to hear arguments from the lawyers under seal.