Companies detail payments to Trump lawyer; Daniels' attorney says there's more

By Diane Bartz and John Miller

WASHINGTON/ZURICH (Reuters) - An attorney for porn star Stormy Daniels said he has additional evidence linking a Russian businessman to U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, as international and U.S. companies on Wednesday acknowledged large payments to Cohen's consulting firm.

Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG <NOVN.S> and U.S. telecommunications company AT&T Inc <T.N> said they made payments to Cohen's firm, Essential Consultants, in efforts to gain intelligence into the Trump administration's thinking on issues affecting them. South Korea's Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd (KAI) <047810.KS> said it hired the consultancy for services on accounting matters.

Novartis and AT&T said they were contacted by the office of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller about the situation in late 2017, and provided all the information requested. Both companies said they now consider the matter closed.

A senior official at Novartis told NBC News that Cohen reached out shortly after Trump's November 2016 election win "promising access" to the new administration. Boston-based Stat News also reported that then Novartis Chief Executive Officer Joe Jimenez instructed his team to strike a deal with Cohen.

A Democratic U.S. senator called for hearings about the company payments to the firm run by Cohen, a longtime attorney and self-described "fixer" for Trump.

Payments to the companies "may well have been used to influence the president of the United States, using Michael Cohen and his shell company as a conduit," Senator Richard Blumenthal said at a news conference.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, at a regular press briefing, referred questions about the reported payments to Trump's outside counsel. Asked whether Trump had taken any action to benefit Novartis, AT&T or KAI, Sanders said: "Not that I'm aware of."

The payments were first mentioned on Tuesday by Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Daniels, who says she had a one-time sexual encounter with Trump in 2006 and was paid $130,000 by Cohen in October 2016 shortly before the elections in November to stay quiet about it. Trump denies having sex with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. She has sued both Trump and Cohen.

In television interviews with ABC News and MSNBC, Avenatti declined to say how he obtained information about the payments.

Cohen said a report published on Tuesday by Avenatti's law firm detailing the payments was inaccurate. In a court filing, Cohen's lawyer Stephen Ryan said Avenatti appears to have Cohen's actual bank records and questioned how he could have obtained them lawfully.

Bank records of the company payments to Cohen's firm and payments from Columbus Nova LLC, a New York-based investment firm linked to Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg should be released, Avenatti said in the interviews.

Vekselberg, who has ties to the Kremlin, and his Renova Group conglomerate were sanctioned by the United States in April, freezing assets of up to $2 billion.

A lawyer for Columbus Nova has said Vekselberg had nothing to do with the transaction Avenatti said amounted to $500,000.

Novartis admitted it made a costly mistake in making payments totalling nearly $1.2 million to Cohen's firm. Trump took office in January 2017 and Novartis signed a one-year contract a month later. After meeting with Cohen in March 2017, Novartis determined the firm was not going to be able to provide the type of U.S. healthcare policy information it was seeking.

"In hindsight, this must be seen as a mistake," Novartis spokesman Michael Willi told Reuters, making sure to note that the arrangement was struck under former CEO Jimenez and in no way connected to new CEO Vas Narasimhan.


AT&T confirmed payments of $200,000 to Essential Consultants, although a source familiar with the matter told Reuters it likely paid more than that and could total as much as $600,000. South Korea's KAI said on Wednesday it paid $150,000 to Cohen's firm.

AT&T said it hoped to gain "insights" into the new administration at a time when it sought approval from antitrust regulators for an $85 billion purchase of Time Warner Inc <TWX.N>.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the top Democrats on antitrust subcommittees, wrote to the Department of Justice on Wednesday urging investigation of the payments, including whether there were efforts to influence the department.

"This is not the first time that questions have arisen regarding potential interference by this administration in antitrust law enforcement," the lawmakers said.

Washington’s influence industry is jammed with consultants hired by corporations and trade associations to provide government intelligence about elected officials. Often, they provide information about the inner-workings of an important government office, such as the White House and leadership in Congress.

By choosing not to communicate directly with elected officials on behalf of corporate clients, consultants are not required to register with the government and report lobbying. This form of consulting grew dramatically under former President Barack Obama, who imposed regulations barring lobbyists from taking government jobs or entering the White House.

The U.S. Treasury Department's inspector general's office said on Wednesday it opened an investigation into whether confidential banking records involving Cohen may have been leaked. The Washington Post first reported the investigation.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion by people associated with Trump, who denies any coordination between Moscow and his campaign. The Kremlin denies meddling in the election.

Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to once again decry news coverage about him. One post said that "despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake)."

(Reporting by John Miller in Zurich, Diane Bartz, Ginger Gibson, David Shepardson, Tim Ahmann, Eric Beech and Susan Heavey in Washington and Joyce Lee in Seoul; writing by Bill Berkrot; editing by Grant McCool)