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Michael Cohen’s lawyers, prosecutors suggest potential special masters

Attorney Michael Cohen, center, outside federal court in

Attorney Michael Cohen, center, outside federal court in Manhattan on Monday. Credit: John Roca

Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Michael Cohen have suggested dueling lists of former magistrates and ex-prosecutors to serve as a special master reviewing attorney-client privilege claims on materials seized last week from President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer.

Manhattan U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood asked for potential names from both sides at a Monday hearing on challenges from Cohen and Trump to having a team of prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office review the trove of potentially privileged documents.

Prosecutors continued to insist it would be more efficient for them to conduct the review, telling Wood their inspection of the seized materials will be stalled while providing copies of everything to Cohen and preparing for a proposed May 25 hearing on who should conduct the privilege review.

The three candidates they provided Wood if she decides to name a special master were all former federal magistrates — Frank Maas and Theodore Katz, both associated with the mediation service JAMS, and James Francis of CUNY law school.

Cohen’s lawyers, in a filing Tuesday night, suggested four former Manhattan federal prosecutors from the same office that conducted the raids on the Trump lawyer’s home, hotel room, office and safe deposit box.

They were Bart Schwartz, who runs the investigation firm Guidepost Solutions; George Canellos, a former SEC official now at the law firm Milbank Tweed; Tai Park, who recently defended billionaire Ng Lap Seng in a UN bribery case; and Joan McPhee of the law firm Ropes & Gray.

Wood has not yet made a final decision on naming a special master, but said on Monday that it might enhance the “perception” of fairness if a master determines privilege on a subset of the seized materials, such as any relating to Trump, before prosecutors get a look.

Prosecutors want to have an internal “taint team” walled off from the investigation review all the seized materials. Although they have agreed to hold off looking while they provide copies of the seized materials to Cohen, they contend that delay and naming a special master will retard a “fast moving” investigation.

“The review of any material by a Special Master would not commence until at least June,” prosecutors wrote. “In contrast, the Government’s Filter Team could begin reviewing the materials — materials it lawfully obtained pursuant to a judicially authorized search warrant — this month [April].”

The issue before Wood is who will play the lead role in determining which materials are relevant to the investigation, which are potentially privileged legal communications protected from disclosure and not business communications, and which might lose any privilege because they discuss crime or fraud.

Cohen, who paid off porn star Stormy Daniels to silence her about an alleged Trump affair, is being investigated over personal business matters, the government says. Agents seized his electronic devices and imaged computer drives last week, and previously secretly seized emails.

In addition to paying $130,000 to silence Daniels, Cohen has been under scrutiny by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Congress in their probes of possible election collusion with Russia. His lawyers said Trump is only one of three clients he has had since 2017, along with GOP donor Elliott Broidy and Fox News star Sean Hannity.

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