Mueller questioned Novartis payment to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen | But Is This Just A Side Show?
Drug company says special counsel asked about fees it paid to company created by Cohen in the fall of 2016.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team sought information last November from Novartis, a major pharmaceutical company that paid a company created by President Trump’s lawyer, the drug company said Wednesday.
The interest by Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, indicates that the special counsel is scrutinizing clients that paid Michael Cohen while he served as Trump’s personal attorney.
Cohen is also under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, who are probing his business practices and efforts to squash negative stories about Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election.
New details about Cohen’s clients were released Tuesday by Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star who received the hush money from Cohen to remain silent about an alleged affair with the president.
Among those that paid Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants, last year was the U.S.-based affiliate of a Russian business magnate who attended Trump’s inauguration and was recently subjected to U.S. government sanctions.
Separately, Korean Aerospace Industries confirmed to The Washington Post that it paid $150,000 to Cohen’s company, but spokesman Oh Sung-keon said that it was not aware of its connection to Trump.
The company said that it paid Cohen’s firm “to inform reorganization of our internal accounting system.”
The company is in contention for a multibillion joint U.S. contract with Lockheed Martin for jet trainers. Lockheed said Wednesday it was not aware of any connection between Korea Aerospace and Cohen.
Novartis said Wednesday that it was contacted last November “by lawyers from the Special Counsel’s office regarding the company’s agreement with Essential Consultants.” The drugmaker said it “cooperated fully … and provided all the information requested.”
Novartis spokeswoman Sofina Mirza-Reid said the drug company hired Essential Consultants because it “believed that Michael Cohen could advise the company as to how the Trump administration might approach certain U.S. healthcare policy matters, including the Affordable Care Act.” In all, Novartis paid Cohen’s company $1.2 million.
The agreement was for $100,000 per month and the first meeting with Cohen occurred in March 2017, she said. According to Avenatti’s report, Novartis paid Essential Consultants in part through four wire transfers of $99,980 between October 2017 and January 2018, originating from UBS Switzerland.
Mirza-Reid said the company decided not to pursue the relationship after its first meeting with Cohen but continued to make the payments until the contract expired.
“Following this initial meeting, Novartis determined that Michael Cohen and Essential Consultants would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated related to US healthcare policy matters and the decision was taken not to engage further,” Mirza-Reid said. “As the contract unfortunately could only be terminated for cause, payments continued to be made until the contract expired by its own terms in February 2018.”
Novartis said its current chief executive, Vasant Narasimhan, had no involvement in the agreement with Essential Consultants, which expired the month he assumed his role at the helm of the company.
The company said that the agreement was not related to a dinner meeting Narasimhan had at the World Economic Forum in January with Trump and more than a dozen other leaders of European companies.
The Avenatti report said AT&T paid $200,000 to Essential Consultants. AT&T confirmed making an unspecified payment, saying it was one of several firms hired in 2017 “to provide insights into understanding the new administration.” Essential Consultants did “no legal or lobbying work” for AT&T, the company said, and the contract ended in December.
AT&T declined to comment Wednesday morning on whether Mueller or federal prosecutors in New York had contacted AT&T regarding the payments to Cohen’s company. AT&T had several major issues before federal officials during the relevant time period, including the company’s proposed merger with Time Warner. That deal was struck in October 2016, and the Justice Department began efforts to block the merger with a lawsuit filed in November 2017.
Cohen created Essential Consultants in October 2016 to funnel a $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. The president has denied the affair but his attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has said Trump reimbursed Cohen.
Perhaps the most notable payment to Essential Consultants was $500,000 from Columbus Nova, a U.S.-based affiliate of a company controlled by a Russian oligarch, Victor Vekselberg, according to the documents released by Avenatti.