russia investigation

Michael Cohen Might Not Actually Go to Prison

Going to prison? Says who? Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Michael Cohen clearly isn’t cut out for prison life. Just a year after claiming he would “take a bullet” for Donald Trump, the attorney caved to prosecutors and gave them voluminous testimony about the president and his other lackeys. And at his sentencing on Wednesday, Cohen cried as he talked about a recent tweet in which Trump had called him weak. “It was correct — but for a much different reason than he was implying,” Cohen told the judge, with tears on his cheeks. “It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”

The judge gave Cohen a three-year prison sentence. But fortunately for the attorney, he still might be able to wriggle out of that punishment; even if he can’t, he’ll serve a short stint in a minimum-security facility — likely at a “camp” in the woods upstate, where the Seders are renowned and the commissary is basically the carceral version of Zabar’s.

“This whole sentencing is a hoax,” said Larry Levine when I called him on Thursday. Levine was a logistics man for the mob and a private investigator before he was convicted of racketeering and spent ten years in 11 different prisons. Now he runs Wall Street Prison Consultants, which is what it sounds like: a consulting service for extremely rich people on their way to prison. Levine added that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will likely issue more indictments soon, and Cohen will have more chances to cooperate in exchange for less prison time.

“I’ll bet my fucking nut — my left and right nut — that they’re going to need his testimony,” Levine said. And he doubts Cohen will hold out long. “He’s going to see his kids crying,” Levine said. “He will fucking roll.”

Levine isn’t alone in this theory. I spoke with several seasoned attorneys who think Cohen might still dodge prison time. If he cooperates further, Mueller could invoke Federal Criminal Rule 35, which lets prosecutors ask for sentence reductions when defendants have helped the government after conviction. “It will depend largely on him,” said David Kris, a veteran of the Obama Justice Department and the founder of a consulting firm, Culper Partners.

Cohen was charged in this case by the prosecutor for the Southern District of New York — not by Mueller. But as his case wound through the courts, he gave 70 hours’ worth of interviews to Mueller’s team, and in exchange Mueller put in a good word with the judge. On the spectrum of cooperation in Russiagate, Kris noted, Cohen is somewhere in the middle — he helped out more than Paul Manafort but less than Michael Flynn. He also refused to answer certain questions from the Southern District lawyers. There’s still a significant chance he’ll decide to open up more. “I’m sure his attorney has told him, ‘There’s a safety valve in Rule 35 in case you change your mind,’” Kris said.

Cohen isn’t scheduled to report for prison until March — an unusually long time to have to wait. “He’s going to look for ways to stay out, and they know this, and cooperation is his ticket,” Levine said. He added that he has clients who were sentenced two or three years ago and are still on the streets because they’ve been helping prosecutors.

But even if Cohen’s sentence does stick, he could wind up serving much less than three years. He could get nearly five months’ worth of “good time” for staying out of trouble in prison, plus an early release to spend his last several months at home, under supervision. And if he happens to qualify for drug or alcohol rehab, he could get an extra nine months lopped off by completing it (though he isn’t known to have a substance-abuse problem).

For now, at Cohen’s request, the judge is recommending that he go to the minimum-security prison in Otisville, N.Y., a town of 1,000 (not counting prisoners) in the Hudson Valley. It’s a two-hour train ride from Penn Station. No doubt Cohen would rather be in midtown — the prison has been described as a “grim, gray, spirit-draining place” — but as prisons go, it’s almost impossible to do better. Forbes named it one of the ten “cushiest” prisons in the U.S. It has no fences; most of the doors aren’t locked; and it’s safe to say Cohen won’t get shanked in the prison yard. “If you look sideways at another inmate, they’re going to kick you out of there,” said Alan Ellis, a defense attorney who wrote a guidebook to federal prisons. “The biggest problem there is boredom.”

The prison has a large Jewish population, including many Hasidim, and it’s the only federal prison with a full-time rabbi, Ellis said. As of 2008, the much larger medium-security prison next door served extensive Seder meals every spring, with kosher chicken, potatoes, and handmade matzo. And the commissary menu is extensive: with nine kinds of nuts, four kinds of sausage, tuna, mackerel, and a range of cooking supplies. Ray Liotta’s crew in GoodFellas should have been so lucky. “Even if you’re not an observant Jew,” Ellis said — and Cohen has called himself agnostic — “it’s still a pretty good place to be.”

According to the manual, prisoners there have to get up at 6 a.m. and turn their lights out by 11:30 p.m. Most of them work — for penny wages — providing services for the larger prison next door, like laundry or landscaping. “Everybody is on a routine,” Levine said. “You wake up at the same time. You eat at the same time. You’ve got your stupid little jobs. It’s like fucking Groundhog Day.” Inmates are allowed as many as 12 visits a month, and have access to bocce ball, horseshoes, basketball and handball courts, and a baseball field, among other accommodations.

And in his spare time, Ellis suggested, Cohen could make some friends by volunteering his services in the law library.

Michael Cohen Might Not Actually Go to Prison