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Immigration firm appears to thrive after Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's help

AT&T and drug giant Novartis got nothing but bad publicity when they asked Donald Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen for help with business, but a Florida immigration firm that tapped him appears to have gotten nearly everything it wanted. When Nicholas Mastroianni II hooked up with Cohen last year, his business was threatened by a looming regulatory crackdown on the federal EB-5 program that offers foreigners permanent residency visas if they invest in certain U.S. real estate projects.

Cohen put Mastroianni in touch with a lobbying firm that was paying him for referrals. And although it's not clear exactly what the firm did, the proposed crackdown on the visa program collapsed and Mastroianni's business — U.S. Immigration Fund — is now set to pocket tens of millions in fees for acting as a visa broker in a string of ongoing projects.

"Without regulation, the fat cats are still lapping at the bowl," said David North, a fellow at the nonpartisan research firm Center for Immigration Studies who has supported the EB-5 overhaul efforts led by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Neither Cohen nor Mastroianni responded to requests for comment about their newly revealed business relationship.

U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan have seized documents from Cohen's office and home as part of a criminal investigation into his personal business dealings.

Mastroianni has been connected to Trump associates who faced scrutiny before. Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn reportedly investigated the family real estate firm once run by Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner after an aborted effort by USIF to help the Kushners raise $150 million in visa money in China.

Kushner Cos. said last year it would no longer seek visa money to avoid any perception of a conflict with Kushner's role in the White House.

In a recent interview with real estate trade publication The Real Deal, Kushner's father, Charlie Kushner, said he's been told that the Brooklyn investigation of his firm is over. A spokesman for the Brooklyn prosecutors wouldn't comment, citing a policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of an investigation.

Mastroianni, 54, had a string of drug-related felonies in his 20s and a bankruptcy before founding what in eight years has become one of the most successful visa broker operations in the country.

USIF acts as a middleman connecting U.S. real estate developers seeking funding with visa-seeking investors from such countries as China, India and Vietnam who must make an investment of at least $500,000. The firm's website boasts that it has raised $3 billion for projects under the EB-5 program since 2010.

But early last year, all that was under siege. The proposed crackdown on the EB-5 program would have limited it to mostly struggling U.S. communities, hardly the kind of places where USIF was pursuing deals.

At the time, Mastroianni was in the midst of raising at least $700 million for several buildings in the New York City area, including one in bustling Times Square in Manhattan and another in pricey Chelsea. Those deals alone could have generated about $35 million in fees for Mastroianni.

A person familiar with Mastroianni's thinking says he was worried about changes in the EB-5 program when he reached out to Cohen. The lawyer referred Mastroianni to Squire Patton Boggs, a powerhouse lobbying firm that had a "strategic partnership" with Cohen that included a Rockefeller Center office and a $500,000 retainer to send potential clients its way. The person was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and so requested anonymity.

Federal reports show that USIF, based in Jupiter, Florida, ended up paying $370,000 to Squire Patton Boggs, an undisclosed cut of which went to Cohen.

Cohen's talk with USIF, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, was part of a referral business that complemented a consulting business set up to trade on his familiarity with Trump after decade-long work at the president's company.

After their names were leaked to the media earlier this year, companies that hired Cohen moved fast to distance themselves from him. AT&T said it was a "big mistake" turning to Cohen for advice on matters such as its proposed purchase of Time Warner, which is being fought by the Justice Department, and it announced its chief lobbyist would leave the company. Novartis, which was looking for advice on drug policy, said it realized after a single meeting with Cohen that he would be of no use. It called hiring Cohen an "error" and said its top lawyer would resign.

USIF, meanwhile, had a much different experience. The effort to crack down on EB-5 ultimately failed, with new, tougher regulations stalled and a congressional vote in March renewing the program for six months. Grassley blamed the loss in Congress on "big-moneyed New York City real-estate interests."

Just what Squire Patton Boggs did for USIF is unclear. Federal reports say USIF-funded lobbying efforts targeted "reform of the immigrant investor EB-5 program" without giving any detail, and a spokesman for the lobbying firm declined comment.

Several developers that could have been hurt by a crackdown also tried to influence debate. Federal reports show that New York-based Related Cos., for instance, spent $750,000 starting in 2017 on EB-5 lobbying.

The intent of the 1990 law establishing the EB-5 visa program was to help rural and struggling communities and, though requirements have been loosened over the years, a building still needs to be in an area where unemployment is 150 percent above the average U.S. rate.

But companies raising money in upscale neighborhoods are allowed under the law to engage in a bit of gerrymandering, and so they've been creating odd-shaped maps that string together census tracts with low unemployment where they intend to build with other tracts with much higher rates.

For a 2015 residential complex called Trump Bay Street in a New Jersey neighborhood across the Hudson River from Manhattan, the developers got a map approved that included two dozen tracts, all linked together but some miles away from the booming waterfront. Mastroianni ended up raising $50 million from wealthy Chinese for the project, which is partly owned by the Kushners and leases its name from the president's company.

Whether such deals can continue depends on a renewed push for EB-5 changes again this year. Grassley took the Senate floor recently to propose ridding the program of middlemen and their gerrymandering entirely, calling that part of it "too corrupted to be saved."

Michael Gibson, managing director of visa investment consultancy U.S. Advisors, said brokers like Mastroianni who focus on wealthy areas will get crushed if even the more modest changes are made.

"If they kill gerrymandering, these guys are done," Gibson said.