Around the time that telecom giant AT&T hired Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, another group of the president’s allies approached the company offering to get them in the new administration’s good graces, The Daily Beast has learned.
The company spoke with the Washington lobbying firm Avenue Strategies in early 2017, which was co-founded and staffed by Trump campaign veterans and marketed its insight into and favor with the Trump White House, AT&T confirmed on Friday.
News of Avenue overtures to AT&T sheds additional light on its government relations strategy early in the Trump administration—which prompted its hiring of Cohen through an anonymous shell company, a decision that resulted in the ouster of a senior AT&T executive on Friday.
Avenue did not respond to questions about the discussions.
AT&T initially declined to comment. After publication, a spokesperson sent a statement saying that Avenue “reached out to us in early 2017, pitching their services. We agreed to one meeting. We had no interest and there was no contract.”
Its discussions with the lobbying firm took place, shortly after Avenue was founded by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Barry Bennett, a senior adviser on the campaign. Avenue also brought on Ed Brookover, a Republican operative who helped the Trump campaign wrangle delegates at the 2016 convention, and Jason Osborne and Mike Rubino, two other senior Trump campaign hands who later founded their own lobbying firm, Turnberry Solutions.
At the time, Avenue was up-front about the value it could provide in the Trump era. “There are just so few people in Washington who know the president,’’ Lewandowski told The New York Times in February 2017. ‘‘It’s a comparative advantage.’’
According to one source, familiar with the discussions AT&T and Avenue discussed a political consulting arrangement that would not entail official lobbying, and would cost the company in the range of $40,000 per month. But no agreement was ever reached.
Nevertheless, the terms of the proposed deal were similar to those arranged with Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants LLC—high fees, and no official lobbying. AT&T paid the firm about $600,000, the company acknowledged this week, for work on issues that included its proposed merger with cable company Time Warner.
Controversy over AT&T’s relationship with Cohen resulted in the early retirement on Friday of the senior executive who oversaw the arrangement.
“Everything we did was done according to the law and entirely legitimate,” wrote AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson in a Friday memo to its employees. “But the fact is, our past association with Cohen was a serious misjudgment” and “our reputation has been damaged.”
While AT&T’s deal with Cohen was entirely legal, ethics watchdogs say it also illuminated an ugly underbelly of Washington’s influence industry, in which thousands of consultants and government relations executives seek to subtly shift policy in ways that fall short of the legal definition of “lobbying”—and hence do not need to be publicly disclosed.
“Millions in spending on off-the-books influence peddling may not be new, but it is an example of how our political system is tilted towards the interests of the wealthy and well-connected,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center. “Average Americans can’t afford to pay six-figures to get inside information on how to influence government officials.”
Cohen and his company were prime targets for large companies looking to get in the Trump administration’s good graces early last year. So too was Avenue, and AT&T wasn’t the only one that approached the firm.
Tobacco giant Altria also struck a consulting deal with Avenue, a source familiar with the arrangement told The Daily Beast. The details of that arrangement—including fees paid and the specific nature of the firm’s work on the company's behalf—were not immediately clear, though the source said Altria is no longer an Avenue client.
Lobbying disclosure filings show that the company was keenly interested in how the White House and Congress were proposing to reform the nation’s tax code last year. Altria’s lobbyists also reported contacting the Executive Office of the President regarding policies surrounding vapor nicotine products.
Altria did not respond to a request for comment on its work with Avenue.
Both Altria and AT&T pushed early to get in the Trump’s administration’s good graces. The latter donated $2 million to the president’s inaugural committee, which shattered fundraising records thanks in large measure to corporate contributions. Altria chipped in $500,000.
—with additional reporting by Gideon Resnick