Donald Trump, Felix Sater and the Mob: Lawyers Push to Unseal Court Documents They Say Could Show Fraud by President

U.S. President Donald Trump departs from Newark Liberty International airport after a weekend at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on June 11. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Lawyers seeking to unseal documents related to the criminal past of a former business partner of President Donald Trump said in federal court on Monday that the documents may contain evidence that Trump committed fraud.

The sealed documents are from a federal case against Felix Sater. Trump reportedly tapped Sater as a senior advisor for his real estate business in the 2000s even after Sater's earlier role in a Mafia-linked stock scheme became public.

"A fellow named Donald Trump is now president, and he had a business associate named [Sater]. The public needs to know the length of their relationship and the nature of the relationship and what kind of person [Sater] is," attorney Richard Lerner said in Brooklyn, New York, federal court Monday afternoon. "By allowing this regime of secrecy to continue, it's facilitating what may have been fraud by President Trump."

It was unclear from the court proceeding what acts by Trump could possibly be construed as criminal. But Lerner tells Newsweek that if Trump knowingly did real estate deals with a convicted felon, it could constitute financial fraud.

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Another attorney trying to unseal the documents—which include the complaint, cooperation agreement and pre-sentencing report from Sater's case—also tied the issue to Trump. "This case involves integrity issues of the highest level [based on] the relationship between the defendant in this case and the president of the United States," said John Langford, who is representing investigative journalist Richard Behar.

A Department of Justice lawyer told Judge Pamela Chen that unsealing the documents could be unsafe for Sater or others.

Sater served a year in prison in 1993 for stabbing a man in the face with a broken glass. Five years later, he pleaded guilty to taking part in a $40 million Mafia stock fraud scheme and avoided prison by working as a confidential informant for the FBI, The Los Angeles Times reported. While he was still reportedly working for the feds, Sater spent years trying to line up deals for Trump's real estate empire around the world beginning in 2003. Trump backed away from Sater when the latter's criminal past became public in 2007. But about three years later, the real estate mogul started working with him again, according to the Associated Press.

On Monday afternoon, the judge instructed all the attorneys to refer to Sater as "John Doe," but the lawyers seeking to unseal the documents repeatedly mistakenly referred to Sater by his real name. Toward the end of the proceeding, even the judge forgot and did the same.

When a lawyer said Sater has referred to himself as "formerly known as John Doe," the judge quipped, "Sort of like Prince." After over three hours of public arguments, the judge closed the courtroom to reporters and observers and held additional arguments on whether the documents should be unsealed.