Q&A: Cohen's ties to Trump, corporate clients pose questions

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney Michael Cohen's simultaneous relationship with Donald Trump and several blue chip companies that paid him for insight into the new president strikes legal experts as unusual and has triggered questions about client confidentiality.

Cohen

FILE - This Wednesday, April 11, 2018 file photo shows attorney Michael Cohen in New York. The Treasury Department’s internal watchdog says it’s investigating how detailed allegations about the banking records of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer became public. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)


Cohen's arrangement stands out, even in Washington where corporations, trade associations and other organizations spend upward of $3 billion annually to influence legislation and get access to the highest levels of government. He appears to have worked as Trump's personal lawyer while at the same time accepting tens of thousands of dollars from third parties to disclose information about his client.

"If Cohen was representing the president as an attorney, which he has certainly argued was the case, then Cohen's obligations as a member of the bar would seemingly make this arrangement troubling," said Josh Rosenstein, a partner with the Washington firm Sandler Reiff and a specialist in lobbying compliance.

Rosenstein said that if Cohen had Trump's permission to reveal confidential information about him, then the implications may be significant. For example, it may be possible evidence that Trump knew what Cohen was doing and was involved, he said.

"So the devil is in the details," Rosenstein said. "What did the president believe these payments would be used for? What did the president believe he was giving to the companies in exchange for the payments?"

Here are questions and answers about legal and ethical scrutiny Cohen is facing:

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ARE THERE ANY RECENT PARALLELS TO COHEN'S ARRANGEMENT?

Not really, said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog group. "It strikes me as exceedingly brazen," said Holman.

But self-described "fixers" like Cohen who make bad stories go away or help presidents with other thorny matters are not uncommon.

Vernon Jordan served in a fixer role for former President Bill Clinton. A close friend of Clinton's, Jordan chaired his presidential transition team in 1992 while also working for the powerhouse lobbying firm Akin Gump. Jordan, occasionally called the "First Friend," helped White House intern Monica Lewinsky find a job after Clinton ended his intimate relationship with her in May 1997.

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WAS COHEN A LOBBYIST?

Cohen wasn't registered as one. Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause said Cohen had plenty of wiggle room to help his corporate clients, which included AT&T and pharmaceutical giant Novartis, without running afoul of lobbying rules. Those rules, for instance, require that lobbyists register as such only if they've spent at least 20 percent of their time with a client over a three-month period doing lobbying work.

"There is a whole lot of influence peddling that Michael Cohen could do without falling into the scope of federal lobby legislation," said Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the good government group. He added, though: "It's slimy. It looks like an effort to personally profit from his relationship with the president, and hide it all from the public through a shell company."

AT&T said Cohen's company, Essential Consultants, did no legal or lobbying work for the company. Novartis said Cohen was hired to advise the company as to how the Trump administration may approach health care policy.

But Holman of Public Citizen said Cohen's actions appeared to be well beyond the gathering of "political intelligence" and dispensing advice.

"Cohen's corporate clients had business pending before the Trump administration," he said. "Novartis needs FDA clearance for the sale of its drugs and supports rolling back (the Affordable Care Act). AT&T has a lucrative business merger being blocked by Trump's Department of Justice."

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WAS COHEN OBLIGATED TO INFORM TRUMP OF HIS CORPORATE CLIENTS?

Cohen's payments from companies while acting as a personal lawyer to the president may raise legal issues besides whether the consulting work constituted lobbying.

Government ethics lawyer Kathleen Clark said Cohen had an obligation under New York state law to inform Trump of the consulting work if it potentially conflicted with Cohen's work as a personal lawyer to the president. She said failure to inform the president, and get his consent, could expose Cohen to the loss of his law license or other disciplinary measures.

"Trump has a right to know that AT&T is paying Cohen," said Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "These financial relationships may affect the degree to which he trusts what Cohen tells him."

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WAS COHEN BOUND BY THE ETHICS PLEDGE REQUIRED FOR TRUMP'S APPOINTEES?

No. Cohen isn't an employee of the U.S. government and therefore not bound by the pledge, which restricts influence peddling to those coming into or leaving the Trump administration. The pledge, which Trump instituted shortly after his inauguration, prohibits former lobbyists, lawyers and others from participating in any matter that they worked on for private clients within two years of going to work for the government.

Even though the pledge didn't apply, Brendan Fischer of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center said Cohen's arrangement shows that Trump has failed to "drain the swamp" in Washington as he promised he would do.

"This is a snapshot into a dark form of influence peddling," Fischer said.

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Condon reported from New York.


Insight or influence? Trump attorney's business scrutinized

By JEFF HORWITZ, CATHERINE LUCEY AND JONATHAN LEMIRE ,  Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Already under investigation for a payment to a porn star, President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney is facing intensifying legal and ethical scrutiny for selling his Trump World experience and views at a hefty price to companies that sought "insight" into the new president.

One company, pharmaceutical giant Novartis, acknowledged Wednesday it paid Michael Cohen $1.2 million for services, though they ended after a single meeting. Others, including some with major regulatory matters before the new administration, acknowledged payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over at least several months.

The corporate ties could suggest Cohen was peddling his influence and profiting from his relationship with the president. They also raise questions about whether Trump knew about the arrangement.

Cohen's corporate ties were first revealed in a detailed report released by an attorney for pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels. The report alleged that Cohen used a company he established weeks before the 2016 election to receive the payments from a variety of businesses — including $500,000 from one associated with a Russian billionaire. Financial documents reviewed by the Associated Press appear to back up much of attorney Michael Avenatti's report.

Cohen's lawyers said late Wednesday that much of the information released by Avenatti was "completely inaccurate." They told a New York judge that Avenatti made statements "in an apparent attempt to prejudice and discredit Mr. Cohen" as he seeks to intervene in a civil case Cohen brought stemming from April 9 raids on his home and office. The raids were carried out by federal agents looking for evidence in a criminal probe.

The lawyers wrote that some of the information Avenatti published Tuesday did appear to come from Cohen's actual bank records.

Aventti responded on Twitter, saying the attorneys "fail to address, let alone contradict, 99% of the statements in what we released. Among other things, they effectively concede the receipt of the $500,000 from those with Russian ties."

Asked about the reports of the payments to Cohen Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence said on NBC News that it was a "private matter" and "something I don't have any knowledge about."

Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told Bloomberg News Wednesday that Trump was "unaware" of the payments to Cohen.

Giuliani, who recently joined Trump's outside legal team, announced Thursday that he was resigning from his law firm "light of the pressing demands of the Mueller investigation." Previously he had said he was taking a temporary leave of absence.

Three companies confirmed the payments, including Novartis and AT&T, both saying Cohen's Essential Consultants was hired to help them understand the new president during the early days of the Trump administration. Novartis said in a statement that it paid Cohen $100,000 a month for a yearlong contract, thinking the longtime New York legal "fixer" with few Washington ties could advise on health care matters. After a single meeting they decided "not to engage further."

Some of the companies that engaged Cohen also had contact with Trump personally. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson met with him during the transition and has visited the White House as the company has sought approval to absorb Time Warner. The current CEO of Novartis attended a dinner with Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year, though the company stressed that the agreement with Cohen's company predated his time as CEO and he was not involved with the deal.

Public records show that Cohen he is not a registered lobbyist, but he could enter these relationships without violating federal lobbying laws if he did not seek to influence Trump on the companies' behalf.

Still, Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said Cohen's consulting work sounds more like pay-to-play lobbying.

"It stretches the imagination that the work was just for advice. There is no reason that he would have any blinding insights," Weissman said.

Some of the dealings have caught the attention of the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. A spokesman for Novartis said the company was contacted in November by Robert Mueller's office regarding its agreement with Essential Consultants, which expired this year.

AT&T also said it was contacted last year by Mueller's office "regarding Michael Cohen." The company said it "cooperated fully, providing all information requested in November and December of 2017." AT&T added that its consulting contract with Cohen expired at the end of the year and it has received no questions since.

Cohen also used the company to pay a $130,000 payment to Daniels just before the 2016 election in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with the president. Cohen is under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, but has not been charged.

Cohen has told associates that Avenatti's claims are overheated, and he has maintained that he has not done anything wrong, according to a person familiar with the attorney's views but not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

Cohen, who until January 2017 worked for the Trump Organization, was a fixture in the company's headquarters in Trump Tower in the weeks before the president took office. Ex-campaign officials did not recall Cohen or Trump ever discussing Cohen's plans to launch consulting firm, according to three ex-campaign officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The Treasury Department's Office of the Inspector General said Wednesday it was investigating how allegations about Cohen's banking records became public, a response to the memo released by Avenatti.

Inspector general counsel Rich Delmar said the agency's actions stem from its authority as the federal agency that analyzes banking records for potential illegal activity. Under the Bank Secrecy Act, financial institutions must monitor their customers' activities and report suspicious transactions to the government. But that information is supposed to remain confidential.

Avenatti, who has not disclosed where he got his information or released any documents, declined to comment on the probe. But he has called on Cohen and Trump to release their banking records and has urged the Treasury Department to release a so-called suspicious activities report on Essential Consultants.

According to Avenatti's memo, Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire, and his cousin, Andrew Intrater, "routed" eight payments totaling about $500,000 to Cohen's company between January and August 2017. The payments were made by Columbus Nova, an American investment company, Avenatti alleges.

Andrey Shtorkh, a spokesman for Vekselberg said in a statement that Vekselberg did not have a "contractual relationship" with Cohen or his firm.

Columbus Nova's lawyer, Richard Owens, said the company hired Cohen after Trump's inauguration in January 2017 as a business consultant "regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures," but that it had nothing to do with Vekselberg.

At the time of the payments, there was an FBI counterintelligence investigation, which special counsel Mueller took over last May, into Russian election interference and any possible coordination with Trump associates.

Vekselberg was targeted for U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration last month. He built his fortune, currently estimated by Forbes at $14.6 billion, by investing in the aluminum and oil industries. More recently, he has expanded his assets to include industrial equipment and high technology.

AT&T said in a statement that Essential Consultants was one of several firms it "engaged in early 2017 to provide insights into understanding the new administration." Avenatti alleged that the company made four $50,000 payments to Cohen totaling $200,000 in late 2017 and early 2018. AT&T said Cohen's company "did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017."

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Richard Lardner in Washington, and Jake Pearson and Bernard Condon in New York contributed to this report.

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