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.