Former top government ethics official: Payments companies made to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen were like nothing I’ve ever seen

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, said the payments a handful of companies made to President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen were like nothing he’s ever seen before.

Shaub, who served in that role under President Barack Obama and briefly under Trump, told Business Insider in a conference call that it is still hard to determine the overall significance of the payments.

“I think that in particular the extent to which he appeared to sell access to government was not like anything I’ve seen before, certainly not business as usual in Washington,” he said Tuesday.

Last week, Michael Avenatti, the attorney for porn star Stormy Daniels, who is suing Cohen, released information about Cohen’s financial dealings that showed companies paid the attorney lucrative sums in exchange for his services following the presidential election.

Companies like telecom giant AT&T, pharma’s Novartis, Korea Aerospace Industries, and the Russian-tied investment firm Columbus Nova, confirmed that they paid Cohen for his advising services. The information Avenatti revealed could land Cohen, who is under criminal investigation but has not been charged, in more legal trouble.

Unethical, but legally permitted

The companies, which sought Cohen’s proximity to and knowledge of Trump, paid Cohen more than $1.2 million through his company, Essential Consultants LLC. That is same firm he created to facilitate a $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford), who has alleged she had an affair with Trump in 2006.

Walter Shaub.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“Anyone who is cynical enough to say that” it’s business as usual in Washington “is either exaggerating or has a motive because in reality this is different in degree and maybe in nature significantly,” Shaub, who’s now at the Campaign Legal Center after stepping down from from his post at OGE last year, said.

On Friday, the authors of Politico Playbook garnered attention for writing about how the Cohen payments were more of the same in Washington, DC.

“NO, the swamp is not drained. Give us a break. We’re not defending the status quo – but welcome to reality. This is the campaign finance/lobbying/government system Congress created and DC fostered,” the authors wrote, later adding, “All of the people who say they are against the system participate in it. Yes, the people who rage against the machine are greasing the skids.”

Shaub said there are still a lot of questions left to be answered.

“It’s not clear the extent to which the president was endorsing or sanctioning his behaviors,” he said. “And it’s not clear what all of the money was for or where all of it came from. So I think there’s a lot more to be revealed. And I think it’s a really important piece around the concerns about corruption in this administration.”

As one expert told Business Insider, if the payments were simply to gain access to the president, they “may well be legal,” pointing to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the corruption case involving former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia.

“Completely unethical, but legally permitted,” Jordan Libowitz, spokesperson for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Business Insider.

On Thursday, CNN reported that AT&T hired Cohen to advise the company on its merger with Time Warner, Federal Communications Commission regulation, and tax reform. The work was not to include any lobbying, an AT&T source told the outlet.

“If the payments were meant to influence Trump’s official conduct, and if any benefit from them was meant to reach him, that would almost certainly implicate Cohen and possibly others including Trump in federal criminal offenses including bribery,” Libowitz said. “If it were strictly lobbying — something that’s been denied, then it runs into legal issues for not registering and disclosing the lobbying. If the money were for something else, like covering the Stormy Daniels payments, there could be campaign finance violations.”

Since Cohen is not a registered lobbyist and, additionally, didn’t disclose the payments previously, he could be in violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act for payments from domestic sources or the Foreign Agents Registration Act for foreign sources of such money, experts said.

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