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Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen moves to sue U.S. for $20 million on claim of prison retaliation for book

Michael Cohen exits the Manhattan district attorney’s office on March 19, 2021 in New York City.

Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images

Michael Cohen, the former personal lawyer and fixer for ex-President Donald Trump, has moved to sue the U.S. government for $20 million on a claim that he was illegally returned to prison last year in retaliation for planning to write a book about Trump.

Cohen, in a notice of claim filed against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, accuses the government of false arrest, false imprisonment and wrongful confinement.

Cohen, 54, says he suffered “emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss of freedom” from being sent back to a federal prison in July 2020 just weeks after being furloughed early due to concerns over his risk from Covid-19.

Cohen’s lawyers are preparing a second claim alleging that then-Attorney General William Barr and BOP Director Michael Carvajal violated his First Amendment right to free speech by returning him to prison.

The filing comes almost a year after a Manhattan federal court judge, in ordering Cohen’s release after more than two weeks, ruled that the purpose of Barr and Carvajal in sending Cohen back to prison “was retaliatory in response to Cohen intending to exercise his First Amendment rights to publish a book critical of the President and to discuss the book on social media.”

The government has six months to respond to Cohen’s claim. If it does not respond, he would be able to file a lawsuit against the government and other defendants.

The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cohen declined to comment on the case.

His lawyer, Jeffrey Levine, in a statement said: “Mr. Cohen was the personal attorney to the President of the United States and if he could be thrown in jail for desiring to write a critical book of the President one’s imagination need not go far before realizing that such unacceptable and constitutionally violative conduct could be directed at any of us.”

“That is not hyperbole and not acceptable,” Levine said.

Levine told CNBC that Cohen has made requests under the Freedom of Information Act seeking documents “leading to the retaliation” against him, but “nothing meaningful has been provided” by the government.

“The filing [of a claim] … is the beginning of our quest to obtain the truth,” Levine said in an email. “That is the weaponization of the Justice Department by the former President and his complicit AG William Barr, as well as hold them accountable for their actions.”

Cohen, who loyally served Trump for years, pleaded guilty in 2018 to multiple federal crimes.

Those included campaign finance violations related to hush-money payments to women who said they had sex with Trump, lying to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, and financial crimes.

Cohen also became a harsh critic of Trump, cooperating with several investigations of the then-president.

On Thursday, the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, were arraigned in Manhattan Supreme Court on charges related to a scheme to dodge taxes on compensation for executives, including Weisselberg. Cohen has assisted the Manhattan District Attorney’s probe, which led to that prosecution.

Cohen went to prison in early 2019 after being sentenced to three years behind bars. But he was furloughed in spring 2020 over concerns that he was particularly at risk from the coronavirus due to pre-existing health conditions.

Shortly after his release, Cohen and his lawyer were summoned to meet with federal probation officials in Manhattan on July 9 to discuss the conditions of his home confinement, which he was serving in lieu of his prison term.

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Cohen that day was taken into custody and returned to prison in Otisville, New York, after balking at the condition that he not publish a book, about Trump or anyone else, while serving the remainder of his sentence in home confinement.

“I’ve never seen such a clause, in 21 years in being a judge and sentencing people,” Judge Alvin Hellerstein said during a hearing where Cohen’s lawyers sought his release. “How can I take any other inference but that it was retaliatory?”

Last year, the BOP had said: “Any assertion that the decision to remand Michael Cohen to prison was a retaliatory action is patently false.”

“While it is not uncommon for BOP to place certain restrictions on inmates’ contact with the media, Mr. Cohen’s refusal to agree to those conditions here played no role whatsoever in the decision to remand him to secure custody nor did his intent to publish a book.”

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