WASHINGTON -- Free Press, the national, nonpartisan media reform group, reported today that U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) - sponsor of a federal bill that would prohibit cities and towns from delivering high-speed Internet service to their citizens - owns more than $500,000 worth of stock options in telephone giant SBC.
If passed, the legislation (HR 2726) would be a windfall for SBC and other major telephone and cable companies, allowing them to veto locally supported efforts to provide affordable broadband services. Sessions spent 16 years as an executive at SBC (and its predecessor, Southwestern Bell) before joining Congress. The Texas-based company also ranks as Sessions' second-biggest career patron, pouring more than $75,000 into his campaigns.
"Congressman Sessions is the latest poster child for corruption on Capitol Hill," said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press. "He has put personal greed ahead of his responsibility to the public. This legislation boosts the bottom line of companies like SBC by stifling free-market competition, slowing innovation, and taking away the right of local communities to decide which technologies best serve their interests. Sessions should come clean about his conflicts and abandon this bad bill."
The legislation, titled the "Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act," would "prohibit municipal governments from offering telecommunications, information or cable services" if a corporation or private company offers a "substantially similar service" in the area.
Telephone and cable companies have tried to introduce similar bills in statehouses across the country. In 2005, anti-municipal broadband legislation was rejected in nine of the 13 states where it was introduced -including Texas, where SBC dispatched more than 100 lobbyists and even its CEO in failed push for a bill.
"Soon, nearly all information - TV, radio, telephone and the Web - will be delivered via high-speed broadband," said Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott. "Community Internet connects rural communities, attracts new businesses, and serves schools, libraries and public safety sectors. It will make access to the information superhighway affordable and accessible to everyone."
Free Press discovered Sessions' stock options on his House financial disclosure form for 2003, the most recent year available (see http://www.opensecrets.org/pfds/pfd2003/N00005681_2003.pdf). Sessions also reports owning considerable stock in other companies that would benefit from HR 2726, including Verizon and Bell South. (2004 disclosures will not be available until June 15.)
Free Press is circulating a petition asking members of Congress to oppose HR 2726 and not "stand in the way of local governments serving the needs of local citizens." So far, more than 25,000 concerned citizens have signed the petition, which will be delivered to their representatives.
A copy of the petition is available at www.freepress.net/action/sessionsbill
"These telephone and cable companies are not preserving innovation - they're preserving profits," Scott continued. ""This bill is about cementing their stranglehold on future of communications in America. These telephone and cable companies will stop at nothing to stifle local efforts to bridge the digital divide."