How Telecoms Are Attempting to Buy Amnesty From Congress

One of the benefits from the protracted battle over telecom amnesty is that it is a perfect microcosm for how our government institutions work. And a casual review of the available evidence regarding how telecom amnesty is being pursued demonstrates what absurd, irrelevant distractions are the pro-amnesty justifications offered by the pundit class and the Bush administration.

Just in the first three months of 2008, recent lobbyist disclosure statements reveal that AT&T spent $5.2 million in lobbyist fees (putting it well ahead of its 2007 pace, when it spent just over $17 million). In the first quarter of 2008, Verizon spent $4.8 million on lobbyist fees, while Comcast spent $2.6 million. So in the first three months of this year, those three telecoms -- which would be among the biggest beneficiaries of telecom amnesty (right after the White House) -- spent a combined total of almost $13 million on lobbyists. They're on pace to spend more than $50 million on lobbying this year -- just those three companies.

Let's pause for a brief minute to reflect on how ludicrous and deceptive -- laughably so -- are some of the main FISA/telecom claims that are being advanced. We continuously hear, for instance, that these poor, beleaguered telecoms need protection from the big, money-hungry plaintiffs' lawyers driving these "costly" surveillance lawsuits. One of the two organizations leading the litigation against the telecoms (along with the ACLU) is the non-profit group Electronic Frontiers Foundation. Here is what EFF's Kurt Opsahl wrote this week:

To put this into perspective, AT&T's spending for three months on lobbying alone is significantly more than the entire EFF budget for a whole year, from attorneys to sys admins, pencils to bandwidth.

And then there's the claim -- advanced by the likes of The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, among others -- that it's a grave injustice to force these telecoms to incur attorneys fees in order to defend themselves against allegations that they broke the law because the litigation is so "costly." Yet here these telecoms are spending $1 million per month or more in order to send former government officials to pressure members of Congress to write our laws the way they want them to be written. * * * * *

Then there are the specific lobbying arrangements these telecoms have regarding FISA. AT&T, for instance, paid $120,000 in the first three months of 2008 to the lobbying firm of BSKH & Associates -- the firm of which Charlie Black, top campaign adviser to John McCain, is a founding partner. According to BSKH's lobbyist disclosure form (.pdf), Charlie Black himself, at the same time he was advising McCain, was one of the individuals paid by AT&T to lobby Congress on FISA. From that disclosure form:

Last year, AT&T paid $400,000 to Black's firm. Black was taking money from AT&T to lobby on FISA and simultaneously advising McCain. McCain, needless to say, voted in favor of granting amnesty to AT&T and the other telecoms at exactly the time that his close adviser, Black, was taking money from AT&T to influence Congress on its behalf. And, of course, AT&T and Verizon are among McCain's top donors.

While we're subjected to all sorts of prattle from our pundit class and political leaders about how telecom amnesty is so urgent if we want to be Safe from the Terrorists, this is the sleaze that fuels how the process works. And the sleaze is spread around in a nice bipartisan way.

In addition to Charlie Black's firm, AT&T -- from January to March -- paid $150,000 to the new lobbying firm (.pdf) formed by former Democratic Sen. John Breaux and GOP Sen. Trent Lott, to lobby on only two issues: FISA and net neutrality. Those fees were for only three individuals -- Breaux, Lott and Lott's former Chief of Staff, Bret Boyles. Newsweekreported last September that the telecoms had hired numerous top officials from both the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations to lobby for amnesty. And, as previously reported, contributions from telecom executives to Jay Rockefeller skyrocketed right before he became the key Senator leading the charge for telecom amnesty.

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And then there's the whole sleazy, rapidly growing "Blue Dog lobbying network." The C2 Group is a lobbying firm that includes Jeff Murray, former chief of staff to Blue Dog Rep. Bud Cramer of Alabama, and Robert Van Heuvelen, former chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad (who happens to be the Chair of the Senate Budget Committee and who voted in favor of telecom amnesty). Comcast has paid the C2 Group $90,000 in the first three months of this year and more than $300,000 last year. C2 has extraordinary access to and influence over the Blue Dog coalition, influence which it proudly touts as a key part of its business:

When lobbyist Jeff Murray and his firm, the C2 Group, held a reception earlier this month to honor Members of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition on the occasion of their swearing-in for the new Congress, the event drew a crowd of 300. That's six times the number it was two years ago, Murray said.

The increase is a clear sign of the business community's redoubled affection for the Blue Dogs, a group that lobbyists for corporate America view as a natural ally in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

"On every issue that comes up, I am having clients ask, 'Where are the Blue Dogs on this?'" said Quinn Gillespie & Associates lobbyist Bruce Andrews, a former aide to Blue Dog Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.).

Former Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), a one-time Blue Dog who's now a lobbyist at the law firm Arnold & Porter, said clients are telling him that they've "been dealing with Republicans' in recent years but now want to get acquainted with the Blue Dogs."

Blue Dogs meet every Tuesday at 5 p.m. when Congress is in session. Former Members who are now lobbyists are still welcome to attend -- potentially a crucial perk for clients.

"'Once a Blue Dog, always a Blue Dog' is the motto," said former Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Texas), who is now a senior policy adviser at the firm Olsson Frank and Weeda. "Once you get in the kennel, they don't tend to kick you out."

Murray's former boss, Rep. Cramer, was one of 21 Blue Dogs who wrote to Nancy Pelosi earlier this year demanding amnesty for Murray's client, Comcast, and the other telecoms. Beyond C2, the Quinn Gillespie firm -- referenced in that passage as the firm of the aide to Blue Dog Rep. Tim Holden -- received $60,000 from AT&T in the first quarter this year and more than $300,000 last year. Holden was also one of the 21 Blue Dogs writing to Pelosi to demand amnesty for the client of his former top aide.

Worse, the former Blue Dog members themselves, being paid by AT&T and other telecoms, then go and attend the regular weekly meetings of current Blue Dog members of Congress. And then the Blue Dogs -- while spouting paeans to National Security and the like -- lead the way in working for amnesty to benefit their former colleague's key clients. It all works out so well for everyone involved.

And it just goes on and on like that. In the first three months of this year alone, AT&T paid $200,000 to Roberti Associates, a small lobbying firm of which the Chairman is Vincent Roberti, a former Democratic Congressman and current member of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's Finance group. The firm's Managing Partner is Harmony Knutson, who was "Northeast Finance Director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for the 2005-2006 election cycle" and Finance Director for Democratic Sen. Conrad, among many others. One could spend all day documenting the large sums paid by amnesty-seeking telecoms to lobbying firms stuffed with former executive officials and key Congressional staffers from both political parties.

This, of course, is what all leads to having these corporations literally write our nation's laws and be able to get so close to having such an extraordinary and transparently corrupt gift -- retroactive immunity for lawbreaking -- granted to them. From a Politico report last week:

Telecom companies have presented congressional Democrats with a set of proposals on how to provide immunity to the businesses that participated in a controversial government electronic surveillance program, a House Democratic aide said Wednesday. . . . House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday a FISA deal is "still in flux" but he described the latest developments as "promising" and said he hoped to have a solution soon.

House officials declined to discuss the specifics of the proposed immunity language by the telecoms.

Although it remains to be seen if congressional Democrats will accept the telecom companies' proposal, the communication between the two sides signifies that progress is being made.

The "two sides" referenced there means the House Democratic leadership and the telecoms. Congressional leaders are "negotiating" with the telecoms -- the defendants in pending lawsuits -- regarding the best way for immunizing them from liability for their lawbreaking, no doubt with the help of the former Democratic members and staffers now being paid by the telecoms to speak to their former bosses and colleagues about what they should do. To describe the process is to illustrate its oozing, banana-republic-like corruption, but that's generally how our laws are written. None of this is particularly new, but it's still remarkable to be able to document it in such grotesque detail and see how transparent it all is. In one sense, it's just extraordinary how seamlessly and relentlessly the wheels of this dirty process churn. But in another sense, it's perhaps even more remarkable -- given the forces lined up behind telecom amnesty -- that those who have been working against it, with far fewer resources and relying largely on a series of disruptive tactics and ongoing efforts to mobilize citizen anger, have been able to stop it so far.

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There are two brief updates to note with regard to telecom amnesty:

(1)Wired's Ryan Singel reported this week that a representative of the McCain campaign said that McCain would oppose telecom amnesty in the absence of (a) hearings to find out what they did and (b) an expression of contrition. This would be a major reversal by McCain, who -- as noted -- just voted in February for telecom amnesty without those conditions. An email I sent to the McCain campaign yesterday asking if this is really McCain's position now has not yet been answered.

(2) As Joan McCarter at Kos reports, efforts to negotiate a compromise with Rep. Chris Carney over his leading support for telecom amnesty have failed, and the ad campaign against him will therefore proceed full-speed ahead. The ads will begin running this week, and as many ads as funding permits will run against Carney (who, of course, receives substantial contributions from telecoms). Those who want to contribute to the campaign against him can do so here. Another campaign against a different, politically vulnerable enabler of telecom amnesty and warrantless eavesdropping will begin soon after this one.

UPDATE: The McCain campaign issues a statement repudiating its own representative's statements from this week about McCain's position on amnesty, and instead re-affirms that, as Wired puts it: "John McCain still supports amnesty for telephone and internet companies that helped the Bush Administration target Americans for wiretapping for five years, without getting any court orders" (h/t Paul Dirks). I'm sure that Charlie Black and his "former" firm's telecom clients are quite pleased to hear that.

Note, too, that the McCain statement bizarrely says that McCain "continue[s] to support renewal of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act" even though FISA hasn't expired and isn't up for "renewal." Whoever wrote that statement is obviously quite confused about the basic facts governing the current dispute.

UPDATE II: Matt Stoller emailed to remind me of this invitation to a fund-raiser sponsored by the leading telecoms last January for soon to be ex-Rep. Al Wynn:

What's so notable about it -- to the point of being almost creepy -- is that it's framed so transparently, as though the telecoms are showcasing to the public their control over their own personal Congressmen. Revealingly, once Wynn lost the primary to netroots candidate Donna Edwards, he followed in Trent Lott's footsteps by refusing to serve out his term in Congress, instead resigning in order to become a partner in the Washington lobbying law firm Dickstein Shapiro (though in Wynn's case, he announced he would actually stay in Congress for a few months before joining his new lobbying firm). They no longer even feel a need to dress up or hide the way the whole thing works.
Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.

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