Following critical reporting this week of cable and broadband giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable funding a dinner honoring FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn—one of the regulators reviewing the companies’ proposed $45-billion-dollar merger—the two companies decided Thursday to pull the combined $132,000 they had committed to the event.
Comcast, in addition to pulling the $110,000 that it had committed, is requesting that there be no recognition of the company at the dinner, according to a letter (PDF) from Comcast's Vice President of Community Investment Charisse Lillie to the foundation putting on the event. To make up for the pulling of its funding, Lillie added, Comcast "will instead make an unrestricted contribution to the Kaitz Foundation in the amount of $110,000 so that the Foundation can continue its important work."
According to Politico, Time Warner spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said that the company had informed the Walter Kaitz Foundation via phone of its decision to follow Comcast's lead and pull their $22,000 contribution.
The Kaitz Foundation is an industry-funded not-for-profit that "seeks to advance the contributions of women and multi-ethnic professionals in cable," according to its website.
While Commissioner Clyburn's office said on Wednesday that “it makes sense to honor a champion of diversity and inclusion, the first African American woman on the commission and the only woman in the commission’s 80-year history to serve as its chair,” it is notably the first time since the foundation was founded in 1981 that a sitting FCC chairman has been the honoree of the annual dinner. The honoree is chosen by the foundation's dinner committee, which includes Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and several other telecom executives, according to foundation spokeswoman Joy Sims.
Earlier in the week, press coverage forced Comcast to put out a statement saying, “we absolutely dispute the notion that our contributions have anything to do with currying favor with Commissioner Clayburn or any honoree,” and that “such claims are insulting and not supported by any evidence.”
While the funding of such an event despite a conflict of interest is not illegal, it is still highly suspect, and initially caught the attention of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). On Monday, CREW's Jordan Morrisey wrote a blog post calling the support “one of the more under the radar moves in Comcast’s merger playbook — a playbook that also emphasizes lobbying, campaign contributions and winning support from third-party groups, especially those representing minorities.”
In May, CREW found that between 2011 and 2013, Comcast had spent heavily to honor the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), whose members could be important supporters of the merger. Comcast also gave big to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), honoring, among others, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and the Internet and supported the Comcast/NBC Universal Merger approval in 2011. TWC made fewer honorary contributions than Comcast during the same period, but also contributed $100,000 in honor of the CHC.
CREW spokesman Derrick Crowe broke down Comcast's argument that this year's support of the dinner was justified by previous years' support even more simply: “Donating to a nonprofit and donating to a nonprofit specifically to honor an FCC commissioner who’s about to rule on your upcoming merger are different things,” Crowe told the Washington Post. “Clearly, these companies want to influence the commissioner.”