Friday, 11 May 2018

The Washington Post/Brian Fung: AT&T CEO: Hiring Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was ‘a big mistake’

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The Switch
AT&T CEO: Hiring Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was ‘a big mistake’
by Brian Fung May 11 at 9:54 AM Email the author
A russian oligarch, a porn star and AT&T: The tale of Michael Cohen's shell company

When Stormy Daniels's lawyer tweeted out bank records for President Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen, a whole new web of connections was unfurled. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

AT&T's chief executive said Friday that the company made a “serious misjudgment” to seek advice from President Trump's personal attorney and announced that its top lobbying executive in Washington would be leaving the firm.

“There is no other way to say it — AT&T hiring Michael Cohen as a political consultant was a big mistake,” AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson wrote in a companywide internal email.

The email comes after revelations that AT&T agreed to pay $600,000 to Cohen last year in exchange for advice on how to approach the Trump administration. Internal AT&T documents, obtained by The Washington Post on Thursday, outlined how Cohen was expected to provide guidance on matters facing the company at the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, specifically mentioning AT&T's $85 billion Time Warner merger.

The departing executive, Bob Quinn, who is AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Quinn, who has been in his position since 2016, originally started with the Bell system as an operator for Illinois Bell in 1980, before AT&T was broken up by the Justice Department in a landmark antitrust action four years later.

[Key government witness clashes with AT&T lawyer in Time Warner case]

Three days after Trump was sworn into office, the telecom giant turned to Cohen for help on a wide portfolio of issues pending before the federal government — including the Time Warner merger, according to documents The Post obtained. Trump had voiced opposition to the merger during the presidential campaign, and his administration ultimately opposed the AT&T effort. The Justice Department filed suit in November to block the deal, and that case is pending.

Cohen’s deals with AT&T and other corporate clients were first revealed this week by an attorney for adult-film star Stormy Daniels, but the new documents obtained by The Post offered greater detail about his arrangement with the telecom company and the type of work he had been hired to perform.

It is unclear what insight Cohen — a longtime real estate attorney and former taxicab operator — could have provided AT&T on complex telecom matters. At the same time that he was collecting $50,000 a month from AT&T, Cohen was being paid large sums to advise other companies on a broad variety of issues, including the Affordable Care Act, accounting practices and real estate.

[‘I’m crushing it’: How Michael Cohen, touting his access to President Trump, convinced companies to pay millions]

AT&T and the pharmaceutical company Novartis, another Cohen client, said this week that they provided information about their dealings with Trump’s lawyer to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III last year. Cohen is also under investigation by prosecutors in New York for possible bank fraud and campaign finance violations.

AT&T's ties to Cohen have prompted questions from U.S. lawmakers about whether AT&T sought to influence the government's independent merger review.

“Everything we did was done according to the law and entirely legitimate,” Stephenson wrote. Companies routinely hire political consultants at the outset of new administrations, he said, and AT&T has done so in the past.

But, Stephenson added, AT&T's Washington team failed to fully vet Cohen before hiring him, and that Stephenson takes responsibility.

In a supplemental document linked from the email, Stephenson explained that Cohen was the one who approached the company offering insight on the administration’s “key players, their priorities and how they think.”

In the wake of Trump’s election, corporate clients paid Cohen at least $2.95 million through a company called Essential Consultants, according to figures confirmed by the companies.

Essential Consultants was the same company Cohen used in October 2016 to route money to Daniels in exchange for her agreement not to disclose an alleged affair with Trump.

The corporate payments he received demonstrate how Cohen was able to turn his ties with the new president into moneymaking opportunities, despite Trump’s campaign pledges to “drain the swamp.”

Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, declined to comment to The Post on Thursday's report. Cohen did not respond to requests for comment.

The internal AT&T documents show that Cohen was supposed to spend half his time on “legislative policy development” and the other half on “regulatory policy development.” Payments to Cohen were approved by two executives in AT&T’s public affairs office in Washington.

The New York Times first reported that Cohen offered advice on how AT&T should approach the administration about the Time Warner merger.

The documents specified that Cohen, who was not a registered lobbyist, was to spend none of his time engaged in lobbying. They described his work as advising the company, not contacting federal officials.

Under federal rules, individuals must register as lobbyists if they spend 20 percent of their time working for a client on legislative and executive branch issues and if they have had contact with at least two government officials related to that client, according to Larry Noble, a former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission and an expert on lobbying law.

Cohen’s work for AT&T did not appear to meet that definition, Noble said. However, he noted that hiring the president’s lawyer could trigger ethical questions.

“It is an ethical concern if you have a lawyer who appears to be selling access to a current client, who is president,” Noble said.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, a lawyer for Trump, said Wednesday that the president was unaware of Cohen’s consulting agreements.

Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.

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Brian Fung covers business and technology for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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