Stanley Cohen has made a career out of defending rights activists, people living on the margins of society and clients many Americans believe don't even deserve due process, including Osama bin Laden’s son in law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith.
Cohen is known as the "Hamas attorney" because he has since 1995 represented the party (but not its military arm), which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization. He is also one of the most controversial firebrand attorneys in the U.S., and he is about to be imprisoned for the relatively pedestrian though certainly serious crime of obstructing and impeding the administration of tax laws and failing to report $3 million in income.
The charges, which have sometimes been misreported as tax evasion, are connected to his not filing taxes with the Internal Revenue Service from 2005 to 2010, failing to keep records and not reporting large cash payments.
In his April plea hearing, Cohen stated that “the government failed to note … in each of those years extensions were filed, gross suggested revenues, gross suggested expenses and some payments were made.”
Due to report to prison on Jan. 6 to serve an 18-month sentence, he spent the holidays packing up his office in New York City's Lower East Side while sipping white wine and listening to Judy Garland.
Cohen, 63, who has published his views on the case on his website, describes the case against him as "crap," saying that he pleaded guilty only to "dispose of the case".
Cohen said he has endured "15 years of nonstop harassment" of him and his clients, friends and family and owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees — money he does not have. Facing the prospect of spending five more years in litigation, he "just decided to end it," he said, sounding not at all contrite.
From the start, he has described the case against him as a politically motivated "witch hunt," adding that he has been indicted on rare charges.
"Impeding the IRS — I dare you to find someone else who has been prosecuted for that," said Cohen.
New York Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney John Duncan, who co-represented the government’s case against Cohen in the Northern District of New York, could not say how many cases of obstructing and impeding the IRS have been successfully prosecuted.
"We have had other cases where prosecutions have occurred under that statute," said Duncan, conceding that other tax-related charges are "prosecuted more frequently."
A political target?
Cohen has questioned virtually every element of the case, saying time and time again that he has been targeted for his work, which recently included working behind the scenes to try to secure the release of Abdul-Rahman Kassig, the American aid worker held — and executed — by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
When asked why he would be targeted more than other attorneys representing similar clients, Cohen responded, "How many of them are 'house counsel to Hamas'? How many of them have represented Hezbollah? How many of them have represented secessionist tribes in south Yemen? How many of them have been targeted in Al-Qaeda investigations for years?"
"From Day One, the position of the government has been to harass, to slow me down, to create problems, to drain me financially," he said.
U.S. officials are unmoved by Cohen's charges that his financial disclosures have been targeted for political reasons. "He can say whatever he wants," said Duncan, citing the transcripts of Cohen's plea hearing in which he concedes that "some of the events set forth by the government were correct and were part of the intent to impede the IRS."
Duncan would not comment on the origins of the investigation of Cohen, saying, "Cases of this sort come to the government’s attention through a whole variety of ways. We certainly don't discuss how any particular case originates."
A representative for the U.S. Attorney's office also declined to comment on whether the charges against Cohen were politically motivated. Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, praised the investigation when the indictment was filed in federal court in Manhattan, saying it proved the "commitment to pursuing and prosecuting individuals who seek to circumvent this nation's tax laws."
Robert Fink, of Kostelanetz and Fink, a New York law firm specializing in white-collar criminal litigation and tax-related cases, said cases such as Cohen's typically come to the government's attention in one of two ways.
"The bank reported him, or someone who gave him money got into trouble and reported him ... maybe someone who pled guilty and cooperated [with the government] against him," said Fink. He added that banks could have reported on Cohen several times over the years and that it's not unusual for a defendant to plead guilty even while challenging the legitimacy of the charges.
Cohen hopes to be able to return to practicing law upon his release, which could come as early as January 2016. He’s not sure where he will be serving his time.
"I’ve asked my lawyer send a letter to the judge to recommend that it be Gitmo," Cohen told Al Jazeera. "He didn't have the sense of humor or the courage to do it."