AT&T, Novartis CEOs assailed by Elizabeth Warren, colleagues over Michael Cohen payments

Three Democratic U.S. senators sent critical letters to the CEOs of AT&T and Novartis after they apologized for paying hundreds of thousands of dollars each to the consulting firm run by President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.“Given these ongoing and significant matters, the unusual series of payments … raise obvious questions about corruption,” Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote in the letters, which questioned whether the companies were in a pay-for-play operation. The senators added that the AT&T payments were made despite what they said was Cohen's lack of experience and lack of knowledge about tax reform, antitrust issues, and Federal Communications Commission policy.AT&T is trying to overcome opposition from the Justice Department’s antitrust division to its pending $85 billion purchase of Time Warner. A U.S. district judge is expected to hand down his ruling on June 12.

AT&T paid Cohen’s firm, Essential Consultants, at least $200,000 in late 2017 and early 2018.

But the senators noted AT&T’s political interests could have run deeper than its pending merger.

“AT&T had a significant financial interest in key administration decisions, including whether the Department of Justice would contest the proposed merger with Time Warner, whether the Federal Communications Commission would overturn net neutrality rules, and whether the Administration would push a tax plan that gave huge breaks to corporations like AT&T,” they said.

Last week, the company’s Washington policy chief, Bob Quinn, retired in the wake of the revelations, which CEO Randall Stephenson called “a big mistake.”

AT&T said it retained the services of Cohen’s firm to help it better understand the new administration’s policies soon after the election.

Meanwhile, Novartis CEO Vasant Narasimhan said last week the pharmaceutical giant "made a mistake" engaging Cohen's firm. Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Novartis entered into a one-year agreement with Essential Consultants, paying $100,000 per month for a total of $1.2 million.

In a statement, the company said it entered into the agreement to focus on healthcare policy. It terminated the deal after determining in a meeting with Cohen that his firm would not be able to provide the services Novartis sought, which senators called “stunningly irresponsible” on Monday.

AT&T and Novartis has been contacted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team as part of his investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Overall, more than $4.4 million worth of transactions were processed by Essential Consultants starting shortly before the election and continuing through this past January, according to documents supplied by Avenatti & Associates, the law firm run by adult-film star Stormy Daniels’ attorney.