Cohen Payment Kerfuffle Forces AT&T To Be Slightly More Transparent About Lobbying

from the sunlight-is-the-best-disinfectant dept

Though it kind of flew under the radar given countless other scandals, you might recall how Trump fixer and former lawyer Michael Cohen was also busted selling access to the President. One of the companies involved in this particular aspect of Cohen's grift was AT&T, which was found to have doled out $600,000 to Cohen, presumably under the belief that it would gain additional access and influence.

AT&T's received more than a few favors in the Trump administration since, including an FCC willing to self-immolate on lobbyist demand, and the death of both broadband privacy and net neutrality rules at the agency. Not to mention the Trump tax cuts, which netted AT&T more than $20 billion up front, and at least $3 billion in savings annually in perpetuity. And while the Trump DOJ did sue to thwart the AT&T Time Warner merger, that may have had more to do with Trump's close ties to Rupert Murdoch -- and Trump's disdain for CNN -- than any animosity toward AT&T.

Aside from AT&T throwing top policy man Bob Quinn under the bus for behavior AT&T has engaged in for years, AT&T saw little to nothing in the form of accountability. Amusingly, the little accountability they did witness came courtesy of AT&T's own investors. After the Cohen fiasco highlighted the secretive costs of AT&T's influence machine, some investors pushed AT&T for more transparency. The company recently responded by providing marginally more insight into the vast network of groups and organizations AT&T routinely pays to support its (usually anticompetitive and anti-consumer) policies:

"For the first time, AT&T is divulging some contributions to outside groups that keep their donors secret, providing a fuller, if still incomplete, picture of the Dallas-based telecom giant's vast spending on state and federal politics. A new report released by the company details payments totaling about $4.2 million to industry groups and think tanks that was used for lobbying during a portion of last year.

...The disclosure is the product of a years-long shareholder campaign and allows AT&T to avoid a proxy fight at its April 26 annual shareholder meeting. For the past five years, AT&T had advised investors to vote against nonbinding proposals asking for a report on lobby payments to outside groups.

Even with this slightly more transparent filing, AT&T's payment to Cohen (or the subsequent Barcelona meeting AT&T had with Ajit Pai pre-appointment) would still not have been voluntarily disclosed. That said, it's worth noting that AT&T's report on lobbying expenditures for the first half of 2018 reveal AT&T's funding of several of the telecom-industry-backed lobbying and policy organizations currently under law enforcement scrutiny for their role in those fake net neutrality comments that plagued the net neutrality repeal:

"In a recently released report covering the first six months of 2018, AT&T includes payments used for lobbying to more than 40 outside groups, including two — Broadband for America and the Taxpayer Protection Alliance — that have been subpoenaed by the New York attorney general as part of an ongoing investigation into millions of fake public comments on the FCC's net neutrality proposal."

Granted this is still just a drop in the bucket. As the attacks on net neutrality made pretty clear, AT&T has mastered the dark lobbying art of creating illusory support for what's usually unpopular policy using an ocean of co-opted groups and financially conflicted former and current politicians, happy to parrot AT&T missives in Tweets, editorials, and PR campaigns with nary a financial disclosure. AT&T's lobbyists routinely fail to register as lobbyists, and many telecom sector lobbyists skirt lobbying disclosure rules by simply... pretending they do something else.

That said, while American lobbying and disclosure guidelines are still the legal equivalent of damp cardboard, it's nice to see that the Cohen kerfuffle at least forced AT&T to be more transparent, however marginally.

Filed Under: lobbying, michael cohen, transparency
Companies: at&t

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  1. icon
    Thad (profile), 29 Mar 2019 @ 8:24am


    Shut up, Blue.

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