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Mueller probe plunders New York tabloid swamp

A foul-mouthed taxi kingpin with a history of defrauding state government. A salon owner who ran a prostitution ring before running for governor. A comedian who was the voice of H.R. Pufnstuf.

They’re all longstanding New York fringe characters, and they’ve all been pulled into Robert Mueller’s web, giving the wide-ranging investigation that has Washington on edge a distinctly New York tinge.

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“They’re kinda exactly the trio you would expect at the New York politics version of the Star Wars bar,” said Neal Kwatra, a Democratic political consultant, referring to the Mos Eisley Cantina on the fictional planet of Tatooine. “Weird, wild and par for our current course.”

Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is forcing the special counsel and his colleagues to wade into a New York tabloid swamp, a habitat where outlandish behavior flourishes, particularly if it’s accompanied by ambition and greed. It’s all very New York — “the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening” that Tom Wolfe wrote about in `The Bonfire of the Vanities’ and Donald Trump helped popularize.

That habitat is populated by those who have been nationally prominent for months now — Michael Cohen and Roger Stone, two of Trump’s closest confidants — as well as more local celebrities like one-time taxi overlord Evgeny Freidman, former flesh-peddler Kristin Davis and comedian Randy Credico. In recent months, they’ve gotten a taste of national fame too.

Freidman, for one, reportedly cooperated with the federal investigation into the business dealings of his former colleague Michael Cohen.

Trump’s former lawyer pleaded guilty this week to eight felony counts and implicated the president in helping to orchestrate hush money payments to two women who alleged they’d had affairs with Trump.


Medallion Maverick

Evgeny Freidman

Freidman, a self-described “ short, little, insecure, chubby, Jewish guy from Jackson Heights,” rose to local fame and fortune through his ownership and management of taxi medallions. In May, he pleaded guilty to criminal tax fraud for failing to pay some $ 5 million in state taxes. He reportedly cooperated with the federal investigation into his former business associate, Michael Cohen.


Freidman made his money on taxi medallions — a business interest he shares with Cohen. Before Uber wreaked havoc on yellow taxis, Freidman parlayed that wealth into political power and low-level prestige. He bundled money for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and considered him a friend. Page Six wrote up his daughter’s babynaming ceremony and a barbecue at his French Riviera estate.

He had “manic energy,” recalled David Yassky, who was New York City’s taxi commissioner when Freidman was still riding high on the hog. The man was ”charming,” he said, “but could turn on a dime to aggressive, verging on nasty and bullying.” Were it not for his force of personality, “he would just look like an oddball.”

“U talking about me or POTUS?” Freidman emailed, when asked about Yassky’s comments and the thrust of this article.

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In a subsequent email, Freidman called Yassky an unprintable profanity, and said he “turns tricks on the corner and brings daddy the money! There is no respect and honor in that!” (Yassky responded with a “Ha Ha” bitmoji.)

Like Freidman, Kristin Davis has a penchant for self-promotion. Earlier this month, she reportedly met with Mueller’s team and testified before a grand jury. She leveraged the news into TV appearances on CNN and Fox.


“Manhattan Madam”

Kristen Davis

In the aftermath of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s fall from grace, Davis earned the “Manhattan Madam” sobriquet by insinuating (without apparent proof) that she provided him with prostitutes. It was a move straight out of the playbook of Roger Stone, the godfather to her son who advised her subsequent gubernatorial bid (she lost). She recently leveraged her appearance before a Mueller-related grand jury D.C. into a national TV tour. “I tried to make my appearance in Washington with as little fanfare as possible and to avoid a media circus,” she says. “I do feel I was treated badly and bullied by the special counsel and said so in a limited number of interviews because it needed to be said.”


In the early aughts, she claimed she’d provided former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer with prostitutes through her call-girl company, Wicked Models, although no law enforcement sources verified her claim. She ran novelty campaigns for governor and New York City comptroller on a platform of legalizing drugs and sex work and was arrested in 2013 for dealing Adderall and Xanax to an undercover FBI agent. Her child’s godfather is Roger Stone, the Trump adviser with the Nixon tattoo who a New Yorker writer called “the sinister Forrest Gump of American politics.”

“As Cindy Adams would say ‘only in New York,’” said Davis in an email.

Finally there’s Randy Credico, another Stone satellite and a fixture around New York’s capitol who once smoked a joint inside of the Albany Times-Union’s capitol bureau, interrupted a state ethics board meeting wearing a rubber mask and claiming he was a long-dead Greek philosopher (Diogenes) and is infamous in certain circles for his impressions of New York political figures. He does an entirely unconvincing Al Sharpton and tested out his Rudy Giuliani on a reporter in a follow-up interview for this story.


Political Provacateur

Randy Credico

“A lot of people describe me as a ‘character,’” Randy Credico told POLITICO. He describes himself in other terms. “I’m a showbiz person,” he says. He’s also a political provacateur, a gadfly, a New York political fixture, and, since 2002, an associate of Roger Stone (they met during Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano’s failed campaign for governor of New York State, Credico says). He’ll testify before a grand jury in the Mueller probe in September. In the meantime, he’s writing a book. “I am co-writing a book about this whole experience,” he says, “and that will explain a lot more about the relationship with Stone.”


When Credico received a subpoena last fall to testify before the House Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the 2016 election, he appeared astounded by his sudden elevation to the realm of the nationally relevant.

“I’m in the middle of this quagmire that features people like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, ‘Papa-lop-o-lous’ or however you pronounce his name, and others,” Credico told the NY1 cable news channel.“So my name is now out there with those names.” He also insisted he wouldn’t travel to Washington to testify without his therapy dog, Bianca.

What people know about Credico’s background is largely threaded together from apocryphal stories and a 2003 documentary — he is a comedian who flirted with success before his career stalled.m More recently, Credico has fashioned himself a radio journalist. He managed to score an interview with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Stone, in turn, has said Credico was his backchannel to Assange, and Credico has been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in the Mueller probe on Sept. 7.

When POLITICO reached Credico for an interview, he described his current predicament as “Kafkaesque” and said he is growing a beard so fewer people will recognize him. He very much considers himself a made-in-New York product.

“Thirty-seven, 38 years here have certainly turned me into the type of person that only this state or this city could possibly come up with, you know?” he said. “Same as a guy who does 38 years in prison becomes either very good at prison art or breaking and entering.”

Freidman and Davis rejected the idea that they fall under some sort of archetypal New York “character” rubric.

“Sorry will not indulge in u stereotyping people and boxing them in My parents brought me here to the USA from Russia so we can avoid having ‘Jew’ or ‘Chechen’ or ‘tarter’ etc stamped in our passports!” Freidman emailed.

“Please don’t put me in a category with Randy Credico!!!” emailed Davis.

But they do share a certain commonality, argued Steven Cohen, a former top aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo who now serves as general counsel at Ronald Perelman’s MacAndrews & Forbes.

“They’re all people who wannabe, and are brash and want to push their way in, and have managed one way or another — with enough money or relationships to get closer to the flame — but never close enough,” Cohen said, in an interview.

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Until recently, that description could have applied to Trump, too. In New York, he was never the towering real estate titan he subsequently made himself out to be. The New York real estate titans preferred to build buildings, not brand them. They metered their interactions with the press. They manipulated the levers of power behind closed doors, not on TV.

“We always thought he was kind of a nice guy but a joke, light, a dilettante,” said Darren Dopp, who attended fundraisers that Trump hosted for his then-boss, Eliot Spitzer. “You couldn’t not have that feeling, because you’d walk into his home, and he’s got a picture of himself on his own wall. We’d look at each other and say who the hell has a picture of himself on his own wall?”

Now he is president of the United States of America — and Freidman, Davis and Credico have been drawn into a federal investigation that is likely to the country’s future.

Dopp said he wonders: “What do the decent people of St. Louis think when they see (these folks) saying and doing things that really don’t comport to any notion of fair play or common decency?”

POLITICO illustration/Getty and iStock photos.

Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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