How do you give money to politicians without actually giving them a big fat check directly? Write a check to a charity they are closely associated with. That is just what AT&T has been doing, and it is getting the attention of the public and media outlets.
AT&T has given a substantial amount of money to charities connected to several lawmakers including Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), who just happens to be the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has direct jurisdiction over the Federal Communications Commission. A charity associated with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), who just happens to be on the Senate Appropriations Committee. AT&T also gave a generous contribution to a charity associated with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina), the No. 3 House Democrat. His daughter, Mignon Clyburn also happens to be a member of the Federal Communications Commission.
These charitable contributions are perfectly legal and fully disclosed to the public, but most don't see the connection between the charities, the lawmakers, and AT&T motive: to get its $39 billion merger with T-Mobile approved by the FCC.
That's why we have watchdog groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who see this sleight of hand by corporations more and more.
"It’s another way to curry favor when you’ve maxed out in your political contributions," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "We’re seeing it more and more."
Since 2008, AT&T has given nearly $1.25 million to lawmaker-affiliated charities, according to tax records and lobbying disclosure data analyzed by CREW.
Politico claims that the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute have been major beneficiaries of AT&T’s generosity. Several lawmakers in the two minority caucuses serve on the House Judiciary Committee, which recently held a hearing on the AT&T/T-Mobile deal last week where Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and CEO, made an appearance.
Other donations include $25,000 in 2008 and 2009 to the Mississippi State University Foundation and $15,000 to the Mississippi Council on Economic Education (tied to the Thad Cochran Endowment for Entrepreneurship); $10,000 to the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville (tied to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell); $415,000 to the CBC Foundation and another group the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute; $5,000 to the Missouri Walk of Fame on behalf of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-N.C.); $15,000 to Rep. Joe Baca's (D-Calif.) foundation (AT&T employees serve on the boards or advisory councils of both organizations); $55,000 from AT&T to the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation in 2009 and $86,000 to the South Carolina State University Foundation Inc (where Clyburn and his wife, Emily, graduated from); $295,000 Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute over the last three years.
AT&T's Marie Long also chairs the Corporate Advisory Council for the CBC Foundation, while AT&T employee Jerry Fuentes, serves on the CHC Institute’s board of directors.
The other piece of this puzzle, T-Mobile, gave around $85,000 to lawmaker-linked charities during the same three-year period, and one of the company’s senior officials — Marie R. Sylla-Dixon, T-Mobile’s chief legislative counsel — belongs to the CBC’s advisory council, CREW found.
Vince Morris, Rockefeller’s spokesman, dismissed the idea that AT&T’s support for the Rockefeller-linked charities would have any impact on the Senator's stance on the merger. “The senator’s interest in supporting Alzheimer’s research is separate and long term and never touches on his evaluation of the AT&T merger,” Morris said in a statement to POLITICO. “Even the idea that donating to a charity would influence him is ridiculous.”
Still it's hard to deny that donations - even well intentioned ones with no ulterior motives attached - give an appearance of impropriety.
AT&T’s donations include $165,000 to two organizations tied to Rockefeller: the Blanche Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute and the Alzheimer’s Association. AT&T and its employees have donated almost $38,000 to Rockefeller’s reelection campaign over the past several years as well, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In addition, the company kicked in an additional $8,000 to Rockefeller’s leadership committee, Mountaineer PAC, in the last election cycle.
While Politico's article may have singled out AT&T - mostly because it is seeking approval on a merger that could have a dramatic influence on the mobile phone industry - plenty of other corporations are pushing generous donations to charities associated with lawmakers.