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Judge sets June 15 deadline for privilege search in Michael Cohen case

Michael Cohen, center, President Donald Trump's lawyer, arrives

Michael Cohen, center, President Donald Trump's lawyer, arrives for a hearing at a federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday. Credit: Charles Eckert

Legal teams for President Donald Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen will have until June 15 to complete reviewing for attorney-client privilege millions of files that the FBI seized from Cohen in an April raid, a Manhattan federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In a contentious 75-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood also rebuffed a bid from the high-profile lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels to participate in the case, telling Michael Avenatti he shouldn’t use the court to launch a “publicity tour” against Cohen and Trump.

“You will not be permitted to use this court as a platform,” she said.

Cohen, who made a $130,000 payment to Daniels to keep quiet about an alleged Trump affair, is under investigation for fraud-related offenses. After the April raid, he sued to keep prosecutors from looking at privileged files involving Trump, the Trump Organization and other clients.

Avenatti has tried to insert himself into the case to protect files or audiotapes in which Daniels’ former lawyer may have disclosed privileged matters in negotiating the hush money. But the California lawyer has also used his sudden celebrity to attack Cohen and Trump, and disclosed leaked bank records showing payments to Cohen from companies with federal business.

Prosecutors, who earlier agreed not to review any seized materials until Cohen and his clients made privilege claims and a special master reviewed them, said on Wednesday they had turned over copies of all materials except for recovering and reconstructing the contents of two Blackberries and a shredder.

Cohen’s lawyers said they had completed flagging for the special master privilege claims on 1.3 million out of 3.7 million files, but Wood said their projected mid-July completion was too slow, and said she’d turn over whatever materials are left on June 15 to a prosecution team to review.

“It’s important for the court to balance the slow, deliberate needs of claiming attorney-client privilege with the need of the investigation to go forward,” she said.

That ruling, however, took a backseat to the sideshow involving Avenatti, Cohen and Trump, who are enmeshed in two civil suits and whose clash escalated earlier this month when Avenatti released Cohen’s leaked banking records.

That triggered back-and-forth allegations of misconduct in court filings over Avenatti’s request to be admitted practice in Manhattan federal court to represent Daniels — including a claim from him that Cohen leaked a recording of a conversation with Daniels’ former lawyer to the media.

Stephen Ryan, Cohen’s lawyer, denied that charge Wednesday, acknowledging for the first time that there were “audio files” among the materials seized from Cohen, but telling Wood they were “under lock and key.”

He complained to Wood that Avenatti’s release of secret bank files on Cohen — and two other men named Michael Cohen who were included by accident — was unethical and disqualifying. “It was a drive-by shooting of anyone named Michael Cohen,” he said.

Avenatti told the judge that the release of bank records — revealing payments from companies such as Novartis, AT&T, and an investment firm linked to a wealthy Russian — was irrelevant to the litigation over attorney-client privilege, and was just being used to unfairly smear.

“We did not do anything improper, and in any event that has nothing to do with this proceeding,” Avenatti said.

Wood said she would hold Avenatti’s request to enter the case in abeyance until he makes a formal request from Daniels to intervene, but warned him that if he is admitted he’ll have to obey the court’s rules limiting public statements and give up his high profile media presence.

“If you participate here, you would not be able to declare your opinion as to Mr. Cohen’s guilt, which you did” she said. “You would not be able to give publicity to documents that are not public. It would change your conduct.”

When the hearing was over, Avenatti withdrew his request to appear on Daniels’ behalf subject to possible refiling, and in front of a bank of microphones called for public release of any audiotapes, which he had said moments earlier might include privileged material involving Daniels.

“Just as we had the Nixon tapes years ago, we now have what I will refer to as the Trump tapes,” Avenatti said. “ . . . People can make their own determinations as to their importance pertaining to the president and what he knew and when he knew it and what he did.”

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