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Michael Cohen's Troubled Taxi Business

May 13, 2018
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President Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, was in the spotlight this past week after AT&T confirmed it paid him more than half a million dollars for advice about the administration.

NPR's Jim Zarroli digs into another sliver of Cohen's finances, his troubled taxi business.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: I'm standing outside the Trump Park Avenue in Manhattan where Michael Cohen lives. The street number, 502 Park Avenue, is the address for some of his taxi companies. They have quirky names like Sir Michael Hacking Company and the Sarah B. Good Cab Company (ph). Cohen has a lot of money in the taxi business, which is not a good place to be right now.

GLORIA GUERRA: All right, momma...

ZARROLI: To understand why, let's turn to Gloria Guerra (ph). She is 61. Her husband, William (ph). has driven a cab for years. It paid for this house in a quiet corner of Queens. It put their kids through college. Today, Gloria says, it no longer brings in money.

GUERRA: Right now, it's been sitting for two months in front of my home without making an income for us. We're devastated because this was our retirement.

ZARROLI: In 1983, the Guerras bought a medallion. That's a small plaque attached to the hoods of New York City cabs. And you've long needed a medallion to operate a taxi in this city. Once you owned one, you could make steady revenue from driving or you could lease it to other companies. For immigrants like the Guerras who come from Cuba, buying a medallion has long been a reliable way into the middle class.

Dave Pollack (ph) lobbies for taxi credit unions.

DAVID POLLACK: Buying a medallion didn't make you a millionaire. You bought yourself a job with a big mortgage with the hopes that after years of hard work, the price will have gone up and you will have paid off some of that debt.

ZARROLI: The Guerras bought their medallion for more than $80,000. A few years ago, it was worth around $1.2 million. And banks eagerly lent money against them. You could borrow against one medallion to buy another or 10. Industry consultant Bruce Schiller (ph) says the medallion frenzy was like the housing boom.

BRUCE SCHILLER: Most owners would continue to refinance their medallion as the values went up, use it as an ATM machine in the same way people were encouraged to use their house as an ATM.

ZARROLI: Michael Cohen and his wife owned more than 30 of these medallions. But like the housing boom, the medallion mania ended. Uber and Lyft came along. Taxi revenue fell. Today, medallions are worth less than $200,000, and taxi owners such as Cohen have felt the pain. CNN calculated that Cohen owes $282,000 in taxes on his cabs. In New York, where taxis are part of the landscape, business has plunged. That's why the Guerra's taxi sits unused. Guerra had an accident and can't drive, and the couple can't sell their medallion because banks aren't financing sales anymore.

GUERRA: They sold us this franchise, and they gave it away for nothing.

ZARROLI: As for Cohen, his taxi businesses are part of the broader investigation into his finances by federal officials. And what they find could put added pressure on him to cooperate with the special counsel looking into Russia's role in the election. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.