AT&T Cans Exec Over Cohen Payment Kerfuffle, Pretends This Kind Of Influence Peddling Isn't Perfectly Routine

from the whoops-a-daisy dept

As you’ve probably seen, AT&T was recently exposed for paying $600,000 into a shady shell LLC operated by President Trump’s “fixer” Michael Cohen. Initially, AT&T tried to claim that the company had simply hired Cohen for “insight” into President Trump. Given AT&T could easily gain said insight into Trump from any number of its lawyers, lobbyists, and above-board consultants (not to mention the ocean of politicians and regulators in its back pocket), the idea they’d pay a dubious NYC “fixer” for such insight never really carried much weight.

It seems fairly obvious at this point that AT&T was probably paying Cohen for additional access to the President. A leaked document provided to the Washington Post makes it clear that AT&T hoped to gain some advantage in its business before the FCC (net neutrality, privacy, protectionism, protecting its monopoly power), and its efforts to gain regulatory approval for the company’s $86 billion Time Warner merger:

“A ?scope of work? describing Cohen?s contract in an internal AT&T document shows that he was hired to ?focus on specific long-term planning initiatives as well as the immediate issue of corporate tax reform and the acquisition of Time Warner.?

He was also directed to ?creatively address political and communications issues? facing the company and advise the company on matters before the Federal Communications Commission.”

There’s every indication that this additional attention may have paid monumental dividends.

While the Trump DOJ did sue to block AT&T’s merger (DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim wandering off script to actually defend antitrust law), the repeal of net neutrality and broadband privacy rules was a smashing success. AT&T has also had great success in its efforts to force NAFTA “reform” making it easier for AT&T to expand into the Mexican wireless market. And AT&T’s luck has been stellar at the FCC, where the Commission majority (the makeup of which was dictated by AT&T lobbying) has rubber stamped AT&T’s every desire, including the protection of its business broadband monopoly.

As the scandal has grown, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was forced to admit the error of his ways in an e-mail to AT&T employees. Stephenson admitted the payments to Cohen were a mistake, but tried his best to pretend that this wasn’t routine behavior for AT&T:

“To be clear, everything we did was done according to the law and entirely legitimate. But the fact is, our past association with Cohen was a serious misjudgment. In this instance, our Washington D.C. team?s vetting process clearly failed, and I take responsibility for that.

As somebody who has covered AT&T for decades now, I can assure you this Cohen payment is just a tiny portion of the greasy influence peddling AT&T engages in on a daily basis. The idea that this behavior wasn’t perfectly in line with AT&T’s “values” is laughable. And in a country where flimsy lobbying disclosure requirements are routinely tap danced around, trying to claim that this was all above board because you didn’t violate any laws is akin to claiming you’re an expert high jumper because you cleared a bar one inch off the damn ground.

And despite the payment being well in line with AT&T’s behavior, the company decided to throw top lobbying and policy man Bob Quinn under the bus as penance for its sins:

“For the foreseeable future, the External & Legislative Affairs (E&LA) group will report to our General Counsel David McAtee. Bob Quinn, Senior Executive Vice President ? E&LA, will be retiring. David?s number one priority is to ensure every one of the individuals and firms we use in the political arena are people who share our high standards and who we would be proud to have associated with AT&T.”

Bob Quinn had been on the job for less than two years after the retirement of former top lobbying and policy man Bob Cicconi. You may recall Quinn from such hits as AT&T’s laughable efforts to pretend it supports net neutrality while simultaneously spending millions to dismantle popular federal net neutrality protections. And again, while paying Cohen to gain access to the President is certainly shady, it’s well in line with AT&T’s behavior over the last several decades. The question then becomes: will anybody actually do anything about any of it?

AT&T’s a shining example of how “creative” influence peddling has infected this country down to its marrow. From co-opting minority groups and creating fake consumer groups to undermine productive proposals, to using think tanks, hired consultants and academics to spread disinformation, testify as “objective” experts and write Op-Eds where financial ties are rarely disclosed, there’s a universe of influence peddling and lobbying AT&T routinely engages in that existing U.S. laws don’t even operate in the same dimension on.

America has, time and time again, made it abundantly clear that this kind of influence peddling, lobbying and disinformation is not just perfectly legal, it’s the norm. So whether this latest scandal results in substantive change or is just brushed aside as a one-off instance of bad judgement by just a few otherwise innocent companies will be interesting to see.

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Companies: at&t, essential consultants

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Comments on “AT&T Cans Exec Over Cohen Payment Kerfuffle, Pretends This Kind Of Influence Peddling Isn't Perfectly Routine”

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46 Comments
ryuugami says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The very best fixers [was ]

TRUMP: "We’re going to make America great again. We’re going to use our best people.
I’m going to get the best people.
We’re going to deliver. We’re going to get the best people in the world.
We don’t want people that are B level, C level, D level. We have to get our absolute best.
We’re going to use our smartest and our best. We’re not using political hacks anymore. It’s a sophisticated chess match, but I have the best people lined up. You need people that are truly, truly capable. We have to get the best people."

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The very best fixers [was ]

“The only reason Bob Quinn got fired is that AT&T needed a scapegoat, and who better than the guy that oversaw the “fixer” contract?”

Ok, guys, we have to fire someone as a scapegoat. Which of you is near enough to retirement, that we can “fire” you with a huge pension/payout/bonus big enough to smooth over your hurt feelings and your damaged reputation ? (Hint: this bonus will be bigger than $600k.)

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: He wasn't fired for the paymnets...

Which is silly, because AT&T is in an era where getting caught in irrelevant, and shame is non-existent.

I mean really, just look at Trump and Iran:

– In March Trump calls the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq “the single worst decision ever made.”

– Days later he appoints John Bolton – the invasion’s biggest cheerleader – and who promises “regime change” in Iran – as his national security advisor.

– Trump spends April spreading false claims about the Iran nuclear deal. It was an Obama accomplishment so he wants it undone.

– At the beginning of May he addresses the NRA convention. (A speech noted for demented and wingnutty claims even by Trump standards.) Complete with tough talk about Iran.

– A couple days later the NRA names Oliver North as NRA President. You know, the guy who supplied Iran with thousands of TOW anti-tank missiles and scores of HAWK anti-aircraft missiles. And who transferred the proceeds – tens of $millions – to terrorists in Central America.

– A couple days later Trump announces that he’s pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. John Bolton waves his pom-poms.

– A couple days later North appears on Fox News to tell Hannity that all Iranians are liars.

AT&T’s corruption is utterly irrelevant against this background. They could be directly subsidizing Playmates to sleep with Trump, with documents made public showing that they were directed to ask for political favors at strategic moments. It wouldn’t matter. History won’t even remember it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: AT&T's corruption is utterly irrelevant against this background

I would have to agree that compared to the costs of (non-essential) war –both direct and indirect costs– there is nothing a president could possibly do that could waste anywhere near as much money. Bush II launched two major “regime-change” wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama launched two major “regime-change” wars, Libya and Syria. Trump took over overseeing all four of those conflicts, and could potentially add Iran as the next American regime-change invasion. All three of those presidents were elected by criticising their predecessor’s rush to military intervention and promising “no new wars” and all three broke their promise.

Here’s a prediction: If the pressure on Trump becomes too much for him to bear, he’ll start a war, and all his harshest critics, both from the right and left, will come together and support him. Such war might add another one or two trillion dollars to the national debt, but no matter, the press will cheerlead the mass-bombing and invasion of another country all the way and turn Trump into a hero. And all the other scandals, whether genuine issues or prurient tabloid fodder, will be pushed off the news. And for heaven’s sake, don’t impeach Trump, or he’ll be ordering bombing blitzes as he stands trial, just as Clinton did.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: AT&T's corruption is utterly irrelevant against this background

Here’s a prediction: If the pressure on Trump becomes too much for him to bear, he’ll start a war

It’s not much of a prediction. He’s already bombed Syria twice (1, 2). How many does it take before we call it a war?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: AT&T's corruption is utterly irrelevant against this background

The volunteer army is having difficulty recruiting, guess they will have to start up the draft in order to continue their ill fated attempts at taking over the world. This will be met with resistance which will continuously increase … it is almost as if they have forgotten their huge vietnam blunders.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Draining the swamp [was He wasn't fired for the paymnets...]

He was fired for getting caught.

Fired for this, fired for that, bottom line is still fired —retired— —same thing— —whatever— fired. Bottom line. Fired.

Or at least that’s one way to spin it…

White House: AT&T-Cohen issue proves Trump is ‘draining the swamp’ ” [video :47], CNBC, May 11, 2018

Q: … Does the president think that it was a mistake for his lawyer to work with [AT&T and Novartis] ?

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: … This is actually the definition of draining the swamp.…

(Further “White House addresses AT&T payment to Michael Cohen” [video story 1:30], CNBC, May 11, 2018)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Draining the swamp [was He wasn't fired for the paymnets...]

Funny how I keep reading/hearing this “drain the swamp” phrase but I have yet to see/hear anything that attempts to define exactly what these folk are talking about.

I imagine that no one agrees upon what it means and this is by design so that it can be used anywhere, anytime.

They claim to be draining the swamp, but according to my definition of what should mean … they removed a few turds and then started filling it up with even more turds of their choosing. The damned sewage is now overflowing into our streets.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Draining the swamp [was He wasn't fired for the paymnets...]

… attempts to define exactly what these folk are talking about.

Do you think the White House is going to state flatly — that the president planned to get AT&T’s top lobbyist fired? To ‘drain the swamp’.

Would you believe it, if they did?

I s’pose if Cohen was wearing a wire when he talked to Bob Quinn…

Naaah.

Anonymous Coward says:

Who said anything about values?

The idea that this behavior wasn’t perfectly in line with AT&T’s "values" is laughable.

Whose idea is that? It certainly wasn’t in the statement, which said "everything we did was done according to the law and entirely legitimate. But the fact is, our past association with Cohen was a serious misjudgment."

It doesn’t say why Stephenson thinks it a misjudgment. I can guess: they didn’t realize at the time that he’d become politically toxic and it would come back to them. AT&T’s "values" are to not get caught, and they failed here. Should’ve used more shell corps or a lower-profile criminal.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Credit where due

trying to claim that this was all above board because you didn’t violate any laws is akin to claiming you’re an expert high jumper because you cleared a bar one inch off the damn ground.

Hey now, they didn’t complain (much) when regulations changed the bar height from one inch to two inches. How much more can you demand from them?

Anonymous Coward says:

The standard practice of corruption -- to infiltrate

It’s a fairly standard business practice to target all the people around the person (e.g., president, AG, etc) to be influenced — his family, his friends, his business associates, his lawyers, his golf buddies, etc. Find out who these people are, and befriend them, hire them, even marry them.

So then everyone in the targeted person’s social circle, business circle, legal circle, family circle — they all work for YOU.

It’s also one reason why term limits are a good thing, as they serve to make these agents of corruption work much harder, because such infiltrations of a person’s social circle need to be repeated over and over with each new official.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Astonishly clueless

You are on the FCC’s Broadband Advisory Council. You were at a Congressional hearing just a bit ago. Supposedly, you’re a professional, and yet you take time out of your day to act like a churlish troll in the comment sections of sites like Tehdirt and Arstechnica.

Seriously, what on God’s Green Earth is wrong with you?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Astonishly clueless

So I take it you know who the key players are then? I’d ask you to tell us to actually prove Bode wrong for once, but odds are you’re either going to scream “look, Google!” or peddle more hemming and hawing in place of any actual citations.

What do they pay you to do such dedicated damage control? Blowjobs? You’ve been quite the busy ISP fluffer recently…

Anonymous Coward says:

Why it's not considered a bribe — yet

AT&T and Novartis paid Michael Cohen. Why it’s not considered a bribe — yet”, by Danny Cevallos, NBC, May 11, 2018

Legal analysis

 . . . In a post-McDonnell bribery world, "selling access" might indeed be the "best" scenario for Cohen, so long as "access" didn’t rise to the level of influencing an "official act." . . .

Anonymous Coward says:

AT&T memo sez Perfectly Routine

AT&T releases a memo explaining its deal with Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Read it here”, Kevin Breuninger and Ryan Ruggiero, CNBC, May 11, 2018

[AT&T Memo:]  . . . Companies often hire political consultants, especially at the beginning of a new presidential administration, and we have done so in previous administrations. . . .

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Wouldn’t work. It works on cars because there’s a lot of surface area to work with, allowing even ‘smaller’ logos to still be legible, but there’s only so much room on a suit, and with how many company logos you’d need to fit on some of them they’d look like they were wearing suits made of pixels, with countless little colored dots.

Maybe just the top 10 ‘sponsors’ perhaps?

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