AT&T Hired Michael Cohen Firm as It Sought Trump ‘Insights’

(Bloomberg) -- AT&T Inc. confirmed that it hired a firm established by Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, saying it was seeking “insights” around the time the new administration was inaugurated last year.

The relationship came to light on Tuesday, when AT&T was cited by attorney Michael Avenatti as one of the parties that made payments to Cohen’s firm. Avenatti is representing Stephanie Clifford, the porn actress known as Stormy Daniels, who was paid $130,000 by Cohen just before the 2016 presidential election not to discuss an alleged tryst with Trump.

Larry Solomon, a spokesman for AT&T, confirmed the relationship with the firm in an email on Tuesday.

It “was one of several firms we engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration,” he said. “They did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.” It isn’t clear why AT&T would use Cohen, considering that he was a personal lawyer to Trump and not in the administration.

The acknowledgment pulls the second-largest U.S. wireless carrier into a rapidly unfolding legal saga involving the president, his lawyer and alleged ties to Russia. Avenatti also made allegations that a company connected to a Russian oligarch sent $500,000 last year to Cohen’s business.

Essential Consultants is a Delaware LLC started by Cohen, and it’s been previously identified as the source of the hush payment to Clifford. Cohen wouldn’t have had to register as a lobbyist unless he spent 20 percent of the time he devoted to AT&T on efforts to influence the federal government while having at least two contacts with one or more high-ranking government officials, including members of Congress, their staff or administration officials.

Carrier’s Payments

AT&T, based in Dallas, made four payments of $50,000 apiece around the end of last year, according to Avenatti. But the company’s statement that the consulting arrangement started in early 2017 suggests there may have been other payments.

The company announced just before the election that it would merge with Time Warner Inc., a deal that the Justice Department ultimately sought to block. Trump regularly criticized Time Warner’s CNN unit on the campaign trail and threatened to derail any merger.

In working with Cohen’s firm, AT&T sought information about how Trump would respond to the Time Warner deal, according to a person briefed on the matter. The carrier also sought guidance on tax reform and net neutrality, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations were private.

Courtroom Fight

Still, the Justice Department went ahead and opposed the Time Warner merger, and the two sides are just now wrapping up a six-week courtroom fight over the case.

The companies and the government have filed hundreds of pages of post-trial documents, and U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington is weighing whether to bless the $85 billion deal or block it. He plans to announce his decision on June 12.

Meanwhile, other firms also have transferred funds to Cohen’s firm, according to Avenatti’s summary. They include Novartis Investments SARL, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical maker Novartis AG, which made four payments totaling $399,920 in the same four-month span as AT&T.

A Novartis spokesman said he was looking into the issue but added that any agreements with Essential were entered into before the arrival of the company’s current CEO in February and have expired.

There also was a $150,000 payment in November 2017 from Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd., a manufacturer of aircraft, including jets, helicopters and unmanned vehicles, according to the summary.

Korea Aerospace, which is seeking to sell its planes in the U.S., hired Cohen’s entity for advice on local accounting standards and sent a single payment of $150,000 when the work was completed, a spokesman confirmed Wednesday, adding the contract was legal.

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