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One of net neutrality’s biggest enemies ‘retires’ from AT&T amid Michael Cohen scandal

Illustration by T.C.Sottek / The Verge

AT&T has decided to join the growing coalition of people who regret paying President Trump’s lawyer. In a message to AT&T employees today, first obtained by CNN, AT&T President Randall Stephenson said “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.” Regardless, Stephenson insists that “everything we did was done according to the law and entirely legitimate.”

But while Stephenson says he takes “full responsibility” for the mistake, it actually seems like AT&T’s top lobbyist Bob Quinn is taking the hit. Stephenson also announced in his message that Quinn “will be retiring,” and that the company’s lobbying shop will now be reporting to AT&T General Counsel David McAtee.

If you’ve been following any of the net neutrality saga in recent years, you’ve probably seen Quinn’s name once or twice. As one of the telecommunications industry’s most vocal and aggressive lobbyists, he’s spent a lot of time railing against things like net neutrality and internet privacy rules. (Quinn has been defending dubious ISP bullshit since the days of AT&T blocking FaceTime over mobile internet, one of the company’s most egregious abuses.) While his title was technically “Senior Executive Vice President of External & Legislative Affairs,” he often acted as AT&T’s chief blogger, posting lengthy screeds about why internet advocates were hyperventilating and distorting the facts.

AT&T isn’t going to change its tune on sensible internet regulation just because Quinn’s gone, but we’ll probably see fewer spicy blog posts before his position is filled.

Here’s the text of Stephenson’s memo to AT&T staff:

A message from Randall

To: All AT&T employees worldwide

Team,

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 [linked] 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.

And here’s the “more information” that Stephenson references:

Facts around AT&T & Michael Cohen

• 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.