Comcast and Time Warner Cable are sponsoring an event honoring an FCC commissioner, leading some to speculate that they’re greasing federal wheels.
It’s not difficult to find a reason to honor Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. During her six-month tenure as acting FCC chairperson last year, for example, Clyburn broke expectations and her own expressed pragmatism by authorizing the licensing of two new wireless spectrums and signing off on the Clearwire to Sprint to SoftBank double acquisition.
During her short leadership term, Clyburn also helped to establish new rules for prison phone calls — including establishing a cap for the per-minute long distance rate in order to keep calls affordable, which led to some telecommunications companies threatening to sue the FCC — and assisted AT&T in opening up its 700 MHz spectrum to smaller carriers, allowing for freer network “roaming.”
While the notion that Clyburn would be honored with a “diversity advocate” award at the Walter Kaitz Foundation’s annual dinner is neither controversial nor unusual, the event’s sponsors have raised some eyebrows. According to a foundation spokeswoman — as reported by Politico — Comcast Corp. is expected to pay $110,000 to be a “presenting sponsor” at the dinner, while Time Warner Cable paid $22,000 in May to sponsor the event.
A $45.2 billion merger deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is currently being reviewed by the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice. The timing of the donations — a month after the companies filed the public interest statement with the FCC, which started the regulatory review process — has fueled suspicion that the cable companies are trying to buy influence with the commissioner most likely to oppose the deal.
“I think that the timing is curious,” said Carrie Levine, research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. “They’re honoring an FCC commissioner at the exact same time they’re trying to get approval for a merger. And that doesn’t look so good.”
The merger would have Comcast — already the largest cable provider in the United States — possess approximately 30 percent of the nation’s cable capability and 40 percent of the broadband network. With Comcast’s ownership of NBCUniversal, this would make Comcast one of the biggest media companies in the world as well as the controller of the largest “vertical channel” or dedicated “producer/distributor/consumer” network in the country — leading many to suggest that Comcast is forming a monopoly to drive off competition.
Toward these ends, Comcast has established a major lobbying effort to push approval of the merger, which includes the enlistment of more than 80 lobbyists, campaign checks to members of Congress totaling $290,000 for March alone, and a total lobbying bill for the first quarter of 2014 exceeding $3 million. When combined with Time Warner Cable’s $1.9 million, the lobbying tally for this merger exceeds that for Comcast’s $4 million bid for NBCUniversal.
“We absolutely dispute the notion that our contributions have anything to do with currying favor with Commissioner Clyburn or any honoree,” said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice in a statement. “Such claims are insulting and not supported by any evidence. They are purely fiction. We have supported the organization year in and year out regardless of who the dinner honorees have been.”
Comcast is far from being alone in potentially seeking to win federal influence. A recent Politico review has found, for example, that the Obama administration has hired approximately 70 previously registered corporate or trade association lobbyists — despite the president’s assurances of bringing an end to the hiring of staffers who may be serving special interests while employed by the government. While the figures support the White House’s assertion that this administration has done more to prevent special interests from playing a role in policymaking, the administration has failed to completely safeguard Washington from outside money influences.
In June, CREW requested that federal authorities investigate allegations initially made by Louisiana Rep. Vance McAllister that a House member voted against a bill in exchange for a $1,200 campaign contribution — a violation of federal law and House rules. While McAllister has since recanted the allegations, the situation has raised questions of how seriously the federal government takes the threat of undue influence in Washington.
“When a member of Congress has publicly proclaimed personal knowledge of members trading votes for campaign contributions, the question is not should DOJ and the Ethics Committee investigate, it is how is it possible that authorities haven’t already opened inquiries,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “What more would it possibly take to prod those charged with enforcing anti-corruption laws to act?”
Current federal law allows corporations to sponsor or give charitably to organizations patroned or served by federal employees, and federal employees are allowed to be honored by outside entities, as long as federal employee gift rules are followed. The Kaitz Dinner is also being sponsored by Time Warner Inc. (a separate company from Time Warner Cable), Cox Enterprises Inc., the Ion Media Networks and Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., among others.