Posted: Jan. 13, 2015
A SINISTER ELECTION CONNECTION
By Celia Cohen
Matt Denn and Ted Kittila, opponents in the race for attorney general, had another bizarre connection that had nothing to do with the election.
Kittila was the lawyer for a jailed insurance executive accused of plotting to kill Denn.
Not just Denn, either, but also Travis Laster, the vice chancellor who was presiding over a case involving the insurance executive in the Court of Chancery.
This strange episode unspooled during the 2014 campaign season without ever spilling into the election, when Denn outpolled Kittila, the Republican candidate, and three minor-party opponents to become the Democratic attorney general.
Denn, who was the lieutenant governor beforehand, was sworn in last week.
One reason it stayed quiet during the campaign is Denn is not mentioned by name, but only referred to as a "Delaware elected official," in court documents filed by federal prosecutors in Maryland, where the case is, although Laster is named.
Why Laster is identified but not Denn is a mystery, because the U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland will not say. There is no doubt, however, the "Delaware elected official" is Denn.
"I am the person whose name is redacted," Denn himself said.
Not only did Denn know it, but so did Kittila. They talked about it.
"I did reach out to the vice chancellor and to Matt. I was definitely concerned for everyone involved," Kittila said.
This dark tale of a fallen insurance executive named Jeffrey Brian Cohen had its origins in an audit of the books at Indemnity Insurance about two years ago by the Delaware Insurance Department.
Cohen was not exactly a bland businessman. He was a bouncer who had an idea for a niche insurance company providing policies for nightclubs, bars, strip joints and entertainment events.
"He's a very bright man. He's a former bouncer who actually when you meet him is a very personable guy. He built up a company from scratch, and the company was wildly successful," said Kittila, who represented Cohen in insurance regulatory matters from October 2013 to January 2014.
Cohen, who lived outside Baltimore, was a character. He had a fondness for luxury cars and a license plate reading "RISKTKR," according to court documents. He collected vintage action toys, like GI Joe and Star Wars figures, according to Kittila.
When state insurance officials looked into the company finances, Indemnity came crashing down.
The audit led to what federal prosecutors called a "mountain of fake documents" of bogus bank statements with phony confirmations coming from falsified employees at e-mail addresses and a post office box set up by Cohen himself.
Insurance officials here went to the Court of Chancery to get Indemnity shut down. As part of it, Laster ordered Cohen to return his three company cars, namely, an Aston Martin sports car, a Shelby Mustang muscle car and a Range Rover luxury vehicle, to Indemnity's office in Maryland, and did he ever.
Laster found Cohen in contempt of court for not only returning the cars late, but for blocking the entrance to the company parking lot with the Aston Martin and driving the Mustang onto the sidewalk to bar the office doorway. He took a picture with his cell phone, left with the car keys and might have flattened a tire on the Aston Martin, although Laster said it could not be proven Cohen did that.
Federal prosecutors in Maryland moved in. Cohen was indicted on multiple counts of fraud and money laundering. Federal agents raided his home on June 25, 2014, and their focus mushroomed from alleged financial crimes to a suspected assassination plot.
By this time, Denn had been in the attorney general's race for two months, after Beau Biden stunned state politics by deciding not to run for a new term as the Democratic incumbent, and Kittila had decided just the week before to become a candidate and no longer represented Cohen.
Court documents describe what the federal agents found. A $25,000 Surgeon rifle, which is a highly regarded precision firearm, custom made, for long distance. A 12-gauge pump action shotgun. Bomb-making ingredients, like ammonium nitrate used at the Oklahoma City federal building, in a storage locker in Baltimore City.
The agents also found driving directions to the home addresses of Denn and Laster and a stand used for long-range shooting in Cohen's car.
Prosecutors say they have evidence Cohen had gone to a shooting range to practice head shots, asked to cash out a $250,000 life insurance policy, executed a will, arranged for care of his pets, and made notes about fleeing -- "Croatia -- Cheap -- solid gov't -- no Extradition."
Prosecutors also say Cohen made a scouting run to Delaware the weekend of June 21-22, 2014, and even copied down the address of a house for sale across the street from Denn and the name of the real estate agency to use the place for "scouting."
They say they know about the trip not only from cell phone tower and EZ Pass records but from an audio tape Cohen made, saying he "was driving to Delaware to scout out" an attack.
"Society needs to look at the fact that killing isn't wrong in certain circumstances, and killing culls the weak," Cohen was heard saying, according to an account in the Baltimore Sun.
It was serious enough that Delaware state troopers were assigned to Denn for security.
Cohen was arrested and sent to the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore. His public defenders, whom he later dismissed in deciding he would rather represent himself, argued he was just working on a movie script with a Hollywood friend, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Kittila says he does not know what to make of it. "I was utterly shocked when I heard the allegations. They are all allegations, and they are terrible allegations, and I don't represent him now. I pray that whatever it is, it was just a misunderstanding," he said.
At federal court hearings, Cohen's requests for pre-trial release were turned down. It was at one of those hearings in August 2014 that Denn's name became public, when the Baltimore Sun reported Cohen himself shouted it out as he was being returned to custody.
"Lieutenant Governor Matthew Denn, that's the other elected official," Cohen said.
Cohen is still at the Chesapeake Detention Facility to await trial.
Cohen's dealings with Laster are apparent, but Denn?
Although Denn was once the insurance commissioner, elected to a single term in 2004, he was long gone when the department zeroed in on Indemnity. By then, Karen Weldin Stewart was the Democratic insurance commissioner.
Kittila believes Cohen singled out Denn for signing a contract in 2005 with InsRis, then called INS Regulatory Insurance Services, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm that reviewed the financial conditions of insurance companies, including Indemnity, for the department. Actually, all Denn did was renew its services.
"Matt was the insurance commissioner and put in place a lot of the people that Cohen thought were bad-behaved people. He was mad at Karen Weldin Stewart, but Matt had signed them up," Kittila said.
It had Cohen cheering on Kittila's candidacy for attorney general.
"He thought of Delaware as being one of the most corrupt places in the country, something that I adamantly disagree with. Jeff was excited when he found out I was running for office. He thought I was such a boy scout. He saw it as a way to fix the world," Kittila said.
Not that Kittila escaped from this bizarre episode untouched.
"Mr. Cohen owes me a tremendous amount of money," Kittila said.
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Only unfortunate coincidence gave the same last name to Jeffrey Brian Cohen and the writer.