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

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

April 15th, 2009 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

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.