Last updated: June 10, 2011 - 8:53am
AT&T is lining up support for its acquisition of T-Mobile from a slew of liberal groups with no obvious interest in telecom deals -- except that they've received big piles of AT&T’s cash.
In recent weeks, the NAACP, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Education Association have each issued public statements in support of the deal. The groups all say their public positions have nothing to do with the money they received from AT&T. And AT&T says it supports nonprofit groups because it’s the right thing to do — and not because of any quid pro quo. “For decades, AT&T has proudly supported numerous diverse groups and organizations,” a company spokesperson said. But not everyone’s buying it.
“The money that nonprofits receive from their corporate sponsors sticks not only in their bank accounts but in their minds,” Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to government transparency, said. “This is what I think of as deep lobbying — there is an expectation that when push comes to shove, these groups will come out in favor of their benefactors.” AT&T’s corporate giving arm, the AT&T Foundation, doled out $62 million in 2009 to support a variety of arts and education programs, charities and organizations. Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior vice president and top lobbyist, chairs the foundation. AT&T’s record of corporate giving is widely touted by recipients, many of whom cite the company’s extensive record on promoting minorities, women, schools and the arts. But some public interest groups question whether the company is cashing in on its status as one of the country’s biggest corporate donors.
AT&T has assembled a platoon of more than 72 outside lawyers and consultants to work the FCC and Justice Department on the deal. And it’s brought on public relations agencies and other consultants to craft a message that the merger is more about spreading wireless broadband to underserved populations across America than about enriching the company’s shareholders. To build support, AT&T employees and consultants have been making personal visits and calls as well as holding luncheons. Out of about a dozen supporters interviewed by POLITICO, the vast majority said they decided to issue a statement supporting the AT&T/T-Mobile deal after being approached this way. The company has put much of its efforts into winning support from left-leaning groups like labor unions, environmentalists and minorities. Support from these groups may give pause to Washington Democrats who might otherwise rail against wireless industry consolidation.
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