While the news late Wednesday that a shell company set up by President Donald Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen has raked in millions from a dizzying array of corporations spurred controversy for a variety of reasons, open internet advocates were quick to highlight "sketchy" payments AT&T made to Cohen for "insights" on the Trump administration at the same time as the telecom giant was working to merge with Time Warner and kill net neutrality.
"Say these words out loud: AT&T paid $200,000 to a shell company controlled by Trump's attorney Michael Cohen, starting in early 2017 and ending right after Ajit Pai's FCC repealed net neutrality."
—Fight for the Future
According to financial records unveiled on Wednesday by Michael Avenatti, the attorney of adult film actress Stormy Daniels, AT&T paid Cohen's firm—called Essential Consultants L.L.C.—a total of $200,000 in four separate installments between October of 2017 and January of 2018.
Cohen's consulting outfit was the same shell company through which he made payments to Daniels.
The Republican-controlled FCC, led by Trump appointed chairman and former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, voted to repeal net neutrality last December.
AT&T, which has spent millions lobbying in favor of killing net neutrality, confirmed it made the payments shortly after the news broke Wednesday night.
AT&T claims it paid $200,000 to Trump's personal lawyer and fixer "to provide insights into understanding the new administration."
— TimKarr (@TimKarr) May 9, 2018
Say these words out loud: AT&T paid $200,000 to a shell company controlled by Trump's attorney Michael Cohen, starting in early 2017 and ending right after Ajit Pai's FCC repealed #netneutrality https://t.co/nUtctOuhgD
— Fight for the Future (@fightfortheftr) May 9, 2018
"AT&T is sketchy as hell," Fight for the Future, one of the groups leading Wednesday's "red alert" day of action to save net neutrality, wrote in a Medium post late Wednesday.
"AT&T confirms the payment, and explains it away saying they paid Cohen as a consultant to 'gain insight' into the Trump White House," the group adds. "Not conclusive, but certainly fishy and worth looking into. In the meantime, the Senate is about to vote on a resolution to block the FCC repeal and restore net neutrality, so contact your lawmakers now."
— Free Press (@freepress) May 9, 2018
As the New York Times reports, "at least $4.4 million flowed through Essential Consultants starting shortly before Mr. Trump was elected president and continuing to this January."
The money came from a number of corporations, including the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis and Columbus Nova, an investment firm with deep ties to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
In a tweet on Thursday, Avenatti mocked the reasons these companies have given for paying the firm of Trump's personal attorney.
"Who knew Mr. Cohen was such a brilliant renaissance man?" Avenatti wrote.
Priceless = Watching all of the companies that sent money to the LLC slush fund come up with different alleged reasons for hiring Mr. Cohen – “accounting advice,” “real estate consulting,” “insight,” etc. Who knew Mr. Cohen was such a brilliant renaissance man? #nonsense #basta
— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) May 9, 2018
Attempting to track the newly revealed assortment of payments to Cohen's firm, the Washington Post published a helpful diagram that provides some semblance of clarity: