Why a storied lobbying firm gambled on Michael Cohen

- Mei 24, 2018

When Edward Newberry, a top lobbyist for Squire Patton Boggs, started telling people last year that his firm planned to team up with President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, several people tried to talk him out of it.

Cohen was unpredictable, three people who spoke with Newberry — and who were familiar with both the firm and Cohen’s reputation — say they told him at the time. One described Cohen as "a bull in a china shop." Another warned that Cohen could be the next Jack Abramoff, who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2008 on corruption charges.

Squire Patton Boggs — a top Washington firm that lobbies for blue-chip clients, including Coca-Cola, Samsung and UnitedHealth — struck up a "strategic alliance" with Cohen, anyway. Cohen never did any lobbying, according to the firm, but he gave Squire Patton Boggs an undeniable connection to the new administration. Cohen would use his clout to help Squire Patton Boggs land clients; in return, the firm would give him an office and a $500,000 retainer, plus commissions on the business he brought in.


The alliance came to an end last month as FBI agents raided the office the firm had given Cohen in New York. The embarrassment was compounded weeks later when it was revealed that Cohen had been running a side business advising corporate clients out of his Squire Patton Boggs office — something the firm says it knew nothing about.

The firm's gamble on Cohen was supposed to help position Squire Patton Boggs — which spent more than a decade as the top firm on K Street but has struggled in recent years with declining lobbying revenue — for success in the Trump era.

Cohen was one of small group of New Yorkers and campaign veterans who could claim a genuine connection to Trump, and Squire Patton Boggs as well as corporations that hired Cohen for advice were eager to do business with him.

But Cohen's business dealings have since drawn the scrutiny of the special counsel investigating the 2016 campaign. While there's no indication any of Cohen's work with Squire Patton Boggs is under investigation, the alliance has become a touchy subject for the firm amid unanswered questions about what Cohen was up to at is Rockefeller Center offices in Manhattan.

"It certainly doesn't help the image of the firm, and image is something that's very important both for business development and recruitment," said Ivan Adler, a headhunter for the McCormick Group who specializes in recruiting lobbyists. "I think they still have a chance to admit that it was a mistake."

Unlike AT&T and Novartis, which secretly hired Cohen to advise them on the new administration, Squire Patton Boggs hasn't expressed regret for its work with Cohen. And it's not clear what repercussions, if any, have taken place inside the firm. There have been no public revelations of clients leaving or top staffers forced out.

The firm hasn’t said much about what Cohen’s work entailed.

Squire Patton Boggs has said Cohen referred to it five clients, but it won't divulge their identities or say whether any of them remain clients. (The Wall Street Journal revealed that one was U.S. Immigration Fund, a Florida company that paid the firm $370,000 last year in lobbying fees.)

Angelo Kakolyris, a spokesman for the firm, wrote in a text message that "they are almost all legal clients" for which the firm isn't lobbying.

Newberry, who did not respond to requests for comment, and other leaders at the firm have given no interviews about why they teamed up with Cohen and kept working with him after he was swept up in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Cohen, who initially joined the Trump Organization in 2007, has drawn special counsel Robert Mueller’s attention.


The alliance with Cohen "was in keeping with our posture as a global, multi-practice law firm," Kakolyris said in a statement. Cohen "did not work on firm matters or provide advice to any firm clients. We have no insight into his activities that are the subject of the Government's investigation, which do not relate to our firm or its clients."

Squire Patton Boggs faced questions about its alliance with Cohen from the start. But the firm said at the time that it had taken steps to make sure the arrangement was above board.

"It was carefully vetted from multiple perspectives, including an examination of ethical requirements," the firm said in a statement to POLITICO last year when the alliance was announced.

Patton Boggs, the forerunner to the current firm, spent years as the top lobbying shop on K Street under Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., the legendary lobbyist who built the firm into a powerhouse. But the firm stumbled as it grew, leading to layoffs and then a merger with the larger law firm Squire Sanders in 2014. Many of its lobbyists left for other firms, and Boggs himself died later that year.

Squire Patton Boggs still employed some of Washington's most prominent lobbyists when Trump was elected, including former Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John Breaux (D-La.). John Boehner had joined the firm a year after stepping down as House speaker (although he isn't registered to lobby); former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) joined the firm in 2015 after leaving Congress and carved out a niche as a pro-Trump pundit on cable news during the 2016 campaign.

But the firm's lobbying revenue in 2016 slipped to $19 million — less than half of what it brought in four years earlier. That made it fall from its position as the No. 1 firm on K Street, to become No. 6. The firm appeared eager to get back on top in the Trump era.

“Trump has pledged to change things in Washington — about draining the swamp,” Lott told The New York Times after the election. “He is going to need some people to help guide him through the swamp — how do you get in and how you get out? We are prepared to help do that.”

Squire Patton Boggs was far from the only lobbying shop that sought Trump bona fides after the election. Other Trump insiders have gone to work for big firms such as Mercury and Holland & Knight.


Cohen never registered as a lobbyist, but he made millions consulting for companies looking for someone who could help explain the dynamics of the White House.

Squire Patton Boggs has rebounded somewhat under Trump, bringing in more than $24 million last year. It's not clear whether Cohen had anything to do with that success. The firm signed more than 30 new clients in the year between its announcement of the alliance with Cohen and the FBI raid last month, but eight of them reached by POLITICO said Cohen played no role in their decisions to hire Squire Patton Boggs.

Talcott Franklin, the chief operating officer of Secure/Higher Education, which hired Squire Patton Boggs in March to lobby on programs to prevent sexual assault, said in an email that he didn’t even know of the connection.

"I had no idea that Michael Cohen had anything to do with Squire Patton Boggs," Franklin said.


 

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