published Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Tennessee: AT&T effort aided by lobbyists, campaign contributions

Audio clip

Dick Williams

Audio clip

Gerald McCormick

NASHVILLE — As AT&T continues its thus-far-successful legislative drive to deregulate its basic telephone service, the telecommunications giant’s efforts are being aided by a small army of 20 lobbyists, records show.

And, according to state Registry of Election Finance filings, AT&T also has spread considerable good will among lawmakers over the past two years. The company’s political action committee has contributed nearly $180,000 to lawmakers, their PACs or party organizations, records show.

Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, a campaign finance and ethics watchdog group, said Tuesday that given all that, he isn't surprised by the progress of the AT&T bill. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly Monday night and whipped through the House Commerce Committee Tuesday on a voice vote with no debate.

“I’d like to think that just having more money doesn’t carry the day always, but it certainly makes it easier to get done what you want to get done,” Mr. Williams said. “I’d like to think most legislators wouldn’t just weigh who gave me more money. But they certainly give a lot of deference to people who do give them money because of the way our system is.”

AT&T spokesman Bob Corney downplayed the company’s lobbying and campaign contributions and said “it’s important to kind of separate” them from each other. The company is not out buying votes, he said.

“I think there’s a tendency ... to kind of imply a quid pro quo in terms of the political contributions, and I think it’s important to know that our company makes a very hard distinction in terms of the way we approach political contributions,” Mr. Corney said.

The company gives generally to “those lawmakers who have shown a track record of supporting things that enhance the economic environment in the state of Tennessee,” he said.

AT&T CONTRIBUTIONS

Here are some of the larger contributions AT&T made to lawmakers, leadership PACs and political parties or funds during the 2008 election cycle:

* Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington — $5,000

* The Speaker’s Fund (Naifeh) — $4,000

* Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville — $2,000

* RAAMPAC (Ramsey) — $8,000

* House-Senate Democratic Caucus — $18,000

* Tennessee Democratic Party — $10,000

* Tennessee Republican Caucus (House/Senate) — $12,400

* Tennessee Republican Party — $6,000

Source: Tennessee Registry of Election Finance disclosures

Mr. Corney said he had no immediate figures to provide on how much AT&T is spending to lobby the bill this year with its 20 lobbyists.

State Election Registry records show AT&T’s PAC gave almost $180,000 to candidates, usually incumbents, as well as PACs operated by legislative leaders and caucuses and parties in the two-year 2008 campaign cycle.

The PAC, funded by top executives, gave $2,000 to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker, records show. The PAC gave another $8,000 to Mr. Ramsey’s leadership PAC, known as RAAMPAC, according to records.

The AT&T PAC contributed $5,000 to then-House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, and another $4,000 went to Mr. Naifeh’s leadership PAC, the Speaker’s Fund, records show.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who is sponsoring the AT&T-backed deregulation bill, reported receiving $1,250 from AT&T’s PAC in 2007, records show.

“I don’t know how much money I’ve gotten from them,” Rep. McCormick said Tuesday. It is “up to each individual legislator whether they let that kind of thing influence them. I would hope that nobody would. I certainly don’t. I don’t need the campaign money that bad, to be honest with you.”

He said he is sponsoring the bill because he believes AT&T deserves to come out from under price regulation by the Tennessee Regulatory Commission given changes in technology and increased telephone competition from the cable industry and cellular phone companies.

Consumers should benefit, he said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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EaTn said...

Corporations, pac money, lobbyists, legislatures, laws- does this gut sickening cycle never end?

April 15, 2009 at 7:38 a.m.
myanon2cents said...

The reach of AT&T inside TN state government is frankly - scarey. This spans everything from them winning a 10 year telecom contract (who in their right mind would sign a 10 year telecom contract when the telecom industry changes monthly?) , to the breakup 3 years ago of the state's perfectly fine education network that had a 100% customer approval rating for AT&T - with no real end user benefit gained.
This action was met with an 80%+ defection rate from the state's choice because the schools saw that there was little objectivity or common sense in action and lots of political backend by AT&T. This year DOE tried to push the AT&T choice to school districts by playing the "budget cut" card and cut school district's legislatively mandated funding to make their own choice for an Internet provider. The swap was that you give up your choice and use AT&T instead of the state money - such a deal.

Now the the state is proposing that a chunk of the broadband stimulus funding be spent on building another state network that no one wants or needs and, according to comments at the Broadband Task Force meeting a few weeks ago, apparently will not be open for use by independent ISP's.

In the meantime some cities like Chattanooga are trying to make it happen for their own citizens the right way - treat it as a utility and make it happen.

Thank God for some local sense but there are forces in Nashville that would stop cities from building and operating Internet access networks because they are "anti-competitive" i.e. you might take business away from the incumbents like AT&T. The Shrine of Competition needs to be torn down and the Temple of Consumer Public Interest needs to be erected.

We can't allow private companies like AT&T to control what is the equivalent of the digital water supply any longer. We need a national broadband policy that recognizes that the Internet is now just as critical as water, sewer, and electricity and should be regulated as such. AT&T is reminiscent of the Edison Company circa 1905 when electricity was still a corporate rather than public commodity. It wasn't until major metropolitan areas looked like Christmas trees and it was a critical necessity that the government finally stepped in and regulated electricity as a utility. The virtual Christmas Tree is already here. We are almost 20 years into the Internet and it is now time to change our perspective and regulate it before someone "too big to fail" like AT&T is controlling 50+% of its traffic and drives their train off the tracks ala the banking industry.

We desperately need to come up with some type of regulated open network arrangements and shared infrastructure. The only real hope we have now is that Obama doesn't let the FCC get bought out by the carriers.

April 17, 2009 at 11:51 a.m.
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