AT&T's Stephenson: Cohen Contract Was Serious Misjudgment

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson says payments to Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen for political consulting services were a mistake and pledged the company will do better.

Senior EVP of external and legislative affairs Bob Quinn is exiting the company in the wake of the payment revelations. 

That is according to a memo to AT&T employees from CEO Randall Stephenson (below).

Stephenson said the company did nothing illegal and that hiring Cohen as a political consultant was "entirely legitimate." But he said hiring Cohen was a "serious misjudgement," for which he took responsibility. He he also said that Quinn was retiring and that external and legislative affairs would report to General Counsel David McAtee for the foreseeable future.

AT&T says it paid Cohen $50,000 per month for a one-year contract, one of what it called "several consultants" to help it "understand how the President and his administration might approach a wide range of policy issues important to the company, including regulatory reform at the FCC, tax reform, and antitrust enforcement, specifically our Time Warner deal."

The company was being hammered by foes of its views on network neutrality regs.

"The FCC’s announcement this week that net neutrality rules will officially end on June 11th shows that AT&T got what they paid for," said Fight for the Future Executive Director Evan Greer. "The overwhelming majority of people in this country want their lawmakers to vote to save net neutrality. Will our elected officials listen to us, their constituents? Or will they money that AT&T paid them in campaign contributions speak louder? The Senate CRA vote is a test of our democracy.”

AT&T laid out its relationship in a one-pager obtained by B&C/Multichannel News (below).

The contract extended from January 2017, when the President took office, through December 2017.

The company reiterated that it did not pay Cohen to lobby on any of those issues and in fact expressly prohibited him from anything but consulting and advisory services unless he got explicit approval (which didn't happen, AT&T said).

AT&T also said it provided the relevant information to the special counsel investigating Cohen and had considered the matter closed.

Here is the Stephenson e-mail to staff:


Our company has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons these last few days and our reputation has been damaged. There is no other way to say it – AT&T hiring Michael Cohen as a political consultant was a big mistake.

To be clear, everything we did was done according to the law and entirely legitimate. But the fact is, our past association with Cohen was a serious misjudgment. In this instance, our Washington D.C. team's vetting process clearly failed, and I take responsibility for that. Here is more information on this issue, if you're interested.

For the foreseeable future, the External & Legislative Affairs (E&LA) group will report to our General Counsel David McAtee. Bob Quinn, Senior Executive Vice President - E&LA, will be retiring.

David's number one priority is to ensure every one of the individuals and firms we use in the political arena are people who share our high standards and who we would be proud to have associated with AT&T.

To all of you who work tirelessly every day to serve customers and represent the brand proudly, thank you. My personal commitment to you is – we will do better.


Here are AT&T's "Facts around AT&T & Michael Cohen" one-sheet"

"In early 2017, as President Trump was taking office, AT&T hired several consultants to help us understand how the President and his administration might approach a wide range of policy issues important to the company, including regulatory reform at the FCC, tax reform, and antitrust enforcement, specifically our Time Warner deal. Companies often hire political consultants, especially at the beginning of a new presidential
administration, and we have done so in previous administrations.

• "Michael Cohen approached our External Affairs organization during the post-election transition period and said he was going to leave the Trump Organization and do consulting for a select few companies that wanted his opinion on the new President and his administration – the key players, their priorities, and how they think.

• "Our Washington DC team hired Cohen for just that purpose, under a one-year contract at $50,000 per month, from January through December 2017. Our contract with Cohen was expressly limited to providing consulting and advisory services, and it did not permit him to lobby on our behalf without first notifying us (which never occurred). We didn’t ask him to set up any meetings for us with anyone in the Administration and he didn’t offer to do so.

• "When we were contacted by the Special Counsel’s office regarding Michael Cohen, we cooperated fully, providing all information requested in November and December of 2017. Since then, we have received no additional questions from the Special Counsel’s office and have considered the matter closed."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.