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Top lawyer leaving Novartis over Cohen payments

Top lawyer leaving Novartis over Cohen payments
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A top executive for Novartis is leaving the drug manufacturer over payments to President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Felix Ehrat, the senior lawyer for the Switzerland-based company, said Wednesday that he will leave next month.

Ehrat said that the $1.2 million in payments to Cohen’s firm, which he co-signed, were an “error,” even though he said they were legally in order.

“I take personal responsibility to bring the public debate on this matter to an end,” Ehrat said in a statement on the Novartis website

Novartis executives said in the statement that they have “the greatest respect” for Ehrat’s decision to step down.

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Novartis said earlier this month that it hired Cohen on a one-year contract after he promised the company access to Trump and top administration officials for insights on health-care policy.

Novartis said in a statement at the time that the company concluded after a meeting with Cohen that he was “unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated related to US healthcare policy matters and the decision was taken not to engage further.”

Cohen did not register his consulting work for Novartis with the Justice Department. Ethics experts say that Cohen may have run afoul of foreign lobbying laws if it was the Swiss parent corporation — Novartis AG — and not the U.S. subsidiary that held the contract or paid him.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which governs advocacy on behalf of foreign entities, has a much lower threshold for registration than domestic lobbying laws. In addition to those who actually lobby the government, a person would have to register under FARA if they do any kind of public relations for a foreign client or act as a consultant on U.S. policy, as Cohen was hired to do. 

"If the contract was held by the foreign parent, or paid from the the parent, then Michael Cohen would have been subject to FARA. Because it's political activity on behalf of a foreign principal," said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a partner at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock who specializes in lobbying compliance.

Ehrat's statement on Wednesday says he was a co-signatory on the contract with Cohen, along with the then-CEO of Novartis AG, who retired at the beginning of this year.

The burden would be on Cohen, not Novartis, to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent under FARA. Willfully violating registration laws is a felony, though cases are very rarely brought.

Public Citizen, a liberal government watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Justice Department and officials on Capitol Hill earlier this week, asking them to look into whether Cohen violated FARA or the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the U.S. lobbying law, which is overseen by House and Senate record-keeping offices. 

Ehrat’s departure comes just days after a top AT&T executive also stepped down. It was revealed that the telecommunications giant made $600,000 in payments to Cohen's firm, Essential Consultants. 

Novartis had also paid Cohen into the account, which is the same LLC that Cohen used to pay $130,000 to adult-film star Stormy Daniels, allegedly for her silence about an affair she claims she had with Trump. Daniels is suing Cohen and Trump for defamation, as well as to void a nondisclosure agreement about the alleged affair.

--Updated at 10 a.m.