A close confidant of a powerful political figure invites representatives of a Fortune 500 company over to his office. The company has business the political figure could help with—legislation they desire, regulatory matters they’d like to see resolved. So its reps approached the confidant, ostensibly to gather information about how to navigate the political scene. But really, in effect, the company is there to pay cash tribute—six or seven figures worth—hoping that, down the road, the confidant will remember the bounty and use his clout to help fix the company’s problems.
I could be talking about any banana republic around the world. But I could also be talking about Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s ambulance chaser of a lawyer who took just these types of meetings with telecom giant AT&T and pharmaceutical firm Novartis before pocketing as much as $1.8 million into the same shell company coffers out of which he paid off a porn star to keep quiet about an alleged affair with the president.
But I could also be talking about "strategic affairs" groups inside Washington law firms, where former lawmakers or staffers set up shop to debrief corporate clients about government activities. Here’s one at Perkins Coie, featuring former Obama chief of staff and "101st Senator" Pete Rouse. Or this one at McGuire Woods, led by former Congressman Lewis Payne. Or this one at Squire Patton Boggs, led by former Senators John Breaux and Trent Lott. In fact, Squire Patton Boggs had help securing clients last year from none other than Michael Cohen.
It’s true that the Trumpworld version of this old, old Washington tradition reflects influence peddling at its most flagrantly corrupt. Cohen, a fixer who has reportedly bragged about Russian mob ties, doesn’t have deep understanding of US health care or telecom policy. Seeking "insight into Trump’s thinking," as a source close to AT&T has claimed they were doing, is known to be a futile enterprise to anyone with a Twitter account. Novartis, meanwhile, admitted realizing Cohen was essentially conning them after just one meeting, but ended up paying out a 12-month, $1.2 million contract anyway, reportedly because they were afraid to anger Trump.
So the game Cohen played was just that: a con, an exchange of cash for the hope of access and favorable treatment, which AT&T, now in an antitrust lawsuit over its proposed purchase of Time Warner, didn't even get. Cohen wasn't shy in his pitch, either: CNN reported he told companies, "I don't know who's been representing you, but you should fire them all. I'm the guy you should hire. I'm closest to the President. I'm his personal lawyer."
If these aren’t solicitations for bribes, we might as well retire the bribery statute in America. But because Cohen appears to have lied about his clout—because he may even have defrauded those who paid for access or insights or whatever they want to call it—he might have gotten away with it. The only problem was the cash got intermingled with Russian oligarch funds and hush money payments. (The fact that Cohen was a deputy finance chairman for the Republican National Committee should also draw law enforcement questions. Did the party get a piece of this action?)
Cohen’s grift was not unusual among Trump hangers-on who didn’t enter the White House. But it also existed long before that rogue’s gallery ever hit Washington. As one lobbyist explained to CNN, the reason Cohen’s aggressive pay-to-play scheme could work was that corporations "had all of these Hillary (Clinton) consultants lined up and realized when Trump won, they had nobody."
This consulting, this lobbying that isn’t technically lobbying, is legal under current ethics statutes. It exists off the books of lobbyist disclosures. It includes public relations firms and law firms and trade associations and what look like "independent" policy organizations paid out of corporate coffers. Lee Fang explained this shadow lobbying best in 2014 in the Nation, citing an estimate that more than twice as much is spent on influencing government as is being officially reported. "The growth of the influence industry has created a new generation of millionaires while reshaping the region in its wake," Fang wrote about Washington.
There’s an entire other industry known as political intelligence, where Wall Street firms and other corporate clients pay for snatches of information they can use to make trading bets or change their business strategies. None of that is public either, but the middlemen who thrive off it can make millions leaking tips. Political intelligence firms were poised to face registration requirements under the law banning members of Congress and their staffs from insider trading back in 2012, but that provision got yanked at the last minute.
What makes Cohen’s scheme feel sleazier—and the corporations' casual admission of the would-be bribes as well—is that it's just a louder, more explicit version of what happens daily in virtually every office tower in DC. Most people in politics wait to cash in after they complete their tenure in public service; Cohen didn’t even wait until his pal Donald Trump was inaugurated to turn on the money spigot. Obviously, that should be investigated, and if necessary, prosecuted.
But the more subtle, more technically legal forms of this game pose a serious problem of their own. As a recent report from the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute on political corruption indicated, the only time the government seems to crack down on it comes in a time of huge scandal. Fortunately, we’re in that moment right now. Hopefully, policymakers won't narrow their focus to the obvious corruption served up by Michael Cohen, but the entire influence industry, which rewards the highest bidders and subverts democracy.
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