AT&T wants its employees to know that it is so, so sorry that it hired Michael Cohen, President’s Trump’s longtime attorney, whom federal prosecutors are now eyeballing over a $130,000 payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, among other potentially shady business dealings.
Randall L. Stephenson, AT&T chief executive, wrote in a letter on Friday, first obtained by CNN, that it was a “big mistake” to hire Cohen as a political consultant. While everything was done “according to the law,” Cohen’s contract was “a serious misjudgement,” the CEO said.
“In this instance,” he wrote, “our Washington D.C. team’s vetting process clearly failed, and I take responsibility for that.”
It was revealed earlier this week that Cohen, oft-described as a personal “fixer” to President Trump, received a total of $600,000 to advise AT&T on matters reportedly related to its proposed merger with Time Warner, according to internal company documents obtained by the Washington Post. The payment from AT&T was made to Essential Consultants, the same shell company through which Cohen funneled the payment to Daniels in exchange for her not disclosing an alleged affair with Trump.
The Justice Department sued to block AT&T’s merger with Time Warner in November.
In a fact-sheet compiled by AT&T, the company said it was approached by Cohen during the presidential transition period. Cohen was hired under a one-year contract for $50,000 a month. “Our contract with Cohen was expressly limited to providing consulting and advisory services, and it did not permit him to lobby on our behalf without first notifying us (which never occurred),” the fact-sheet reads.
AT&T said it was later contacted by the office of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating, among other matters, possible links and coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Interestingly, Stephenson’s letter about the Cohen affair also notes that Bob Quinn, AT&T’s top lobbyist, has stepped down. Quinn has long been one of big telecom’s most vocal opponents of net neutrality, having written extensively for AT&T’s policy shop about how the Obama-era regulations meant to ensure an open internet were a bane on innovation and consumer well-being.
While AT&T states that Cohen was hired to help the company understand how the Trump administration might approach “a wide range of policy issues important to the company, including regulatory reform at the FCC,” it stops short of identifying net neutrality as one of the issues by name.
The revelations concerning Cohen’s dealings were first aired this week by Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti. Overall, according to documents confirmed by multiple news outlets, Cohen received more than $2 million from major companies seeking influence in the new administration.
The Treasury Department’s inspector general is now investigating whether Cohen’s private bank records—specifically, Suspicious Activity Reports, which are triggered when the government suspects fraud or money laundering—were leaked to Avenatti, which may be illegal.
Avenatti, meanwhile, has remained tight-lipped about his sources.
Update, 5:15pm: The corruption watchdog group American Oversight is demanding the FCC release details about a February 2017 meeting between FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and an AT&T executive with ties to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. As the story above describes, AT&T paid Cohen $600,000 to providing consulting and advisory services, which included, according to AT&T, regulatory matters before the FCC.
“A private dinner between Chairman Pai and an AT&T executive who hired Michael Cohen to influence the president doesn’t reflect well on the impartiality of the FCC,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director. “Pai should disclose exactly what was discussed at the dinner and who organized the meeting. Did Michael Cohen set up a dinner where AT&T executives tried to sway a member of the president’s administration on policy that affects the company? We can’t know for sure until Pai tells the whole story. The FCC has some serious explaining to do.”
Per American Oversight:
Pai, who runs the federal agency tasked with regulating telecommunications companies, met privately with AT&T executives a month after AT&T hired Cohen’s company. On February 27, 2017, Pai had a private dinner with AT&T executives John Stankey and Bob Quinn in Barcelona. The dinner was recorded in Pai’s calendar, which American Oversight obtained through a FOIA request last year.
Stankey and Quinn have both been involved in AT&T’s attempt to buy Time Warner. Stankey has been tapped to lead Time Warner businesses if the merger takes place. Quinn, who resigned from AT&T today, was the company’s top lobbyist and oversaw AT&T’s contract with Cohen’s company.