AT&T has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past several years to charities affiliated with top lawmakers — several of whom oversee telecom policy — as part of a broader effort by the company to win favor on Capitol Hill.
These relationships, which cross party lines in both chambers, could prove valuable for the Dallas-based telecom giant as it seeks federal approval of its $39 billion merger with T-Mobile. The resulting company would be by far the largest wireless provider in the United States.
AT&T’s money has flowed to charities connected to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Federal Communications Commission; Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee; and Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat. Mignon Clyburn, his daughter, is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.
Clyburn said he “does not discuss the business of the FCC with my daughter Mignon.”
While the charitable donations are legal and must be publicly disclosed, watchdog groups have criticized such gifts as a loophole that allows big companies to influence lawmakers by pumping money into their personal charities.
“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.”
Overall, AT&T has given nearly $1.25 million to lawmaker-affiliated charities since 2008, according to CREW, which analyzed tax records and lobbying disclosure data to track AT&T’s donations.
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute have been major beneficiaries of AT&T’s largesse. Several lawmakers belonging to the two minority caucuses serve on the House Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on the AT&T/T-Mobile deal last week that included an appearance by Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and CEO.
And an AT&T official, Marie Long, chairs the Corporate Advisory Council for the CBC Foundation, while another AT&T employee, Jerry Fuentes, serves on the CHC Institute’s board of directors.
T-Mobile has also given $85,000 to lawmaker 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.
On top of millions of dollars in campaign donations and an army of high-powered lobbyists, powerful companies like AT&T regularly give to charities associated with House members and senators, many of whom serve in key committee posts.
In the past, only party leaders and the most senior lawmakers had such charities, but during the past decade, even rank-and-file members have started similar organizations.
“It seems to me that it’s been greatly expanded,” Sloan added. “Members are starting their own charities and are lending their names to others.”
AT&T would not comment for this story.
AT&T’s charitable donations include $165,000 to two organizations tied to Rockefeller — the Blanche Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute and the Alzheimer’s Association. Rockefeller, one of the richest members of Congress, has given heavily to these charities as well.
AT&T and its employees have donated nearly $38,000 to Rockefeller’s reelection campaign over the past several years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In addition, the company kicked in an additional $8,000 to Rockefeller’s leadership committee, Mountaineer PAC, last cycle.
Vince Morris, Rockefeller’s spokesman, dismissed the idea that AT&T’s support for the Rockefeller-linked charities would have any impact on the West Virginia Democrat’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.”
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In a March 20 statement, Rockefeller called on the FCC and the Justice Department, both of which are reviewing the AT&T/T-Mobile deal, to “leave no stone unturned in determining what the impact of this combination is on the American people. Consumers across the country and at home in West Virginia want lower rates, competition and better coverage.”
Rockefeller said the “Commerce Committee will review the details of the acquisition,” although he has not yet scheduled hearings on the merger.
AT&T donated $25,000 in both 2008 and 2009 to the Mississippi State University Foundation, plus $15,000 to the Mississippi Council on Economic Education. MSU is home to the Thad Cochran Endowment for Entrepreneurship, one of several such departments at Mississippi colleges named after the longtime appropriator.
In addition, the telecom giant gave $10,000 to the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is a Louisville grad.
AT&T focused extensively on black and Hispanic lawmakers in its charitable donations during the 2008-10 period. Many of the lawmakers, the vast majority of them Democrats, held committee gavels while Democrats controlled the House.
AT&T, the nation’s second-largest wireless provider, gave a combined $415,000 to the CBC Foundation and another group, the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute, CREW found. The CBC Foundation was the largest recipient of AT&T’s charitable donations during the three-year time frame.
Some of the AT&T donations were given to the CBC “in honor” of Democratic Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Mel Watt of North Carolina. Watt and Jackson Lee serve on the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department. DoJ is reviewing the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, which would combine the nation’s second- and fourth-largest wireless providers, to determine whether it complies with federal antitrust laws.
AT&T’s PAC gave $8,000 and $5,500 to Jackson Lee’s and Watts’s reelection campaigns last cycle as well, Federal Election Commission records show.
AT&T also donated $5,000 to the Missouri Walk of Fame on behalf of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-N.C.), another Judiciary Committee member.
A CBC spokeswoman did not comment by press time on AT&T’s donations or the company’s relationship with the CBC.
The James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation received $55,000 from AT&T in 2009. An additional $86,000 went to the South Carolina State University Foundation Inc. Clyburn and his wife, Emily, graduated from the school. Several weeks ago, Clyburn announced that his foundation would donate $300,000 to S.C. State for a scholarship fund, part of more than $1 million overall that he has funneled to his alma mater.
“My relationship with AT&T began in 1971, more than 20 years before I came to Congress, when the company was still Bell South. For years, I have worked with the company to improve access to advanced telecommunications services for rural, low-income and minority communities throughout South Carolina, and that is a record I am proud of,” Clyburn said. “The company has sponsored the Canzater [golf] Tournament, which was founded several years before I was elected.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute received $295,000 from AT&T over three years.
Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) received $15,000 for his foundation.
AT&T officials serve on the boards or advisory councils that run both organizations. In addition to Fuentes’s role on the CHCI board, Susan Santana, an assistant vice president for external affairs at AT&T, serves as board secretary for the CHLI.
So far, at least some minority lawmakers are not exactly getting behind the AT&T merger with T-Mobile. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a founding member of the CBC and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, blasted the deal during the May 26 hearing.
“I see absolutely no redeeming reason for this merger to go through,” Conyers told AT&T’s Stephenson. “Mergers always eliminate more jobs than they create. There is every likelihood that the proposed acquisition of T-Mobile by AT&T could lead to both higher prices and decreased consumer choices.”