TN: Are the House speaker and his lobbyist wife teaming up for AT$T?
Posted on January 17, 2008 - 9:25am.
from: Nashville Scene
by Jeff Woods
Even the jaded denizens of the state Capitol are wrinkling their noses at House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh’s intervention in one of the legislature’s costliest business battles ever.
Hordes of lobbyists are cashing in on AT&T’s attempt to compete with cable TV companies in Tennessee—and so is Naifeh, assuming he derives benefit from his lobbyist wife Betty Anderson’s lucrative income.
Last year, with Anderson lobbying for the cable industry’s Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association, Naifeh was cool to AT&T’s legislation, and it failed. This year, Anderson has switched sides, signing on as a consultant with AT&T, and suddenly—guess what?—Naifeh is springing into action, leading lengthy negotiations in the past month to hammer out a compromise that’s likely to favor his wife’s client.
The working relationship between Anderson, known as the state’s most powerful lobbyist, and Naifeh, the House speaker for 16 years, has long been controversial—critics say it amounts to legal bribery—but rarely has Betty’s influence over Jimmy seemed so obvious. Asked about the apparent conflict of interest, Naifeh casts himself as an unbiased mediator between cable companies and AT&T, which combined to spend nearly $11 million lobbying the bill last year alone.
In a statement to the Scene, he says, “I have remained neutral on this issue since its inception. I have asked the differing interests to come together and engage in talks to see if they can resolve their differences. I will continue to let the parties talk and will not take a position while these talks are ongoing. I am not swayed by any lobbyist who might be involved. At this time, I remain neutral.”
For all Naifeh’s insistence on neutrality, though, he seems to have become a de facto proponent of AT&T’s bottom-line position simply by demanding negotiations. It’s AT&T that wants to cut a deal. Cable companies like the marketplace the way it is. Except for some competition from satellite TV companies, cable providers enjoy monopolies. AT&T may not get everything it wants, but any agreement would almost certainly change the cable TV franchise system to let AT&T compete statewide, which is the main goal of the telecommunications giant.
Rep. Charles Curtiss, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, recognizes that any improvement in the legislation’s prospects for passage is “due to Speaker Naifeh.”
“The cable providers and AT&T are sitting around the table and trying to work out their differences. I could have never gotten that done last year,” Curtiss said during the House leadership’s weekly news conference. “And I don’t believe I could have done it this year had the speaker not intervened.”
Anderson, who married Naifeh at the governor’s mansion in 1995, emphasizes that she has been hired as a consultant, not as a lobbyist, on the cable TV bill and other issues related to AT&T’s business, as if the lobbyist/consultant distinction matters in this context. She says she quit working for the cable industry only because her lobbying/law firm, Baker Donelson, saw it as a conflict of interest. Baker Donelson does tax work for AT&T. Since going to work for AT&T, she says she’s not tried to influence Naifeh on AT&T’s legislation, or any other bill for that matter.
“I do not use my relationship with the speaker for undue influence, and I don’t view it as a conflict,” she tells the Scene. “I can’t deny that I’m married to the speaker. Obviously, I am. Do I consider that to be an advantage to me as a lobbyist? The answer is no. There are upsides and downsides to it. I do not abuse my relationship with the speaker. My clients know that.”
“Do you see why some people’s eyebrows have been raised by this situation?” we ask her.
“I don’t see eyebrows raised,” she says. “Nobody’s mentioned it to me except you.”
If Naifeh is neutral, AT&T spokesman Kenny Blackburn doesn’t seem to know it. He’s full of praise for the speaker for his intervention on behalf of the bill. “The progress that’s being made on this issue certainly has to do with Speaker Naifeh’s leadership because he realizes that Tennesseans want the benefit of a competitive marketplace as it relates to the cable TV industry,” Blackburn says.
Asked what advice Anderson was giving as a consultant on the bill, Blackburn replies, “That’s between us and her.” Here’s more from that interview:
Scene: Was Betty’s relationship with Naifeh any factor in your decision to hire her?
Blackburn: I would certainly say that her knowledge of Capitol Hill and how things get done on Capitol Hill had a lot to do with it. She’s been a lobbyist in town for how many years? You know as well as I do she knows a lot about Tennessee. She knows a lot about the legislature, and she’s a good person to consult with on a multitude of issues that deal with state government.
Scene: That sounds like you’re saying yes, her relationship with Naifeh was a factor in your decision to hire her.
Blackburn: You’re putting words in my mouth. I told you what I wanted to say about it.
Scene: How much are you paying Betty?
Blackburn: I don’t know.
Scene: If you found out, would you tell me?
Blackburn: No, I wouldn’t tell you.
Lobbying by the spouses of lawmakers is an issue not only in Tennessee but also in many state legislatures and in Washington. Last year, the U.S. Senate barred spouses of senators from lobbying senators and their staffs. The U.S. House adopted a less restrictive rule, prohibiting spouses of House members from lobbying the staffs of only their husbands or wives, as the case may be.
After the “Tennessee Waltz” bribery scandal, our state’s legislators briefly discussed banning spousal lobbying but, predictably, that idea never got anywhere, and the legislature passed only a disclosure requirement.
It’s a delicate issue. Like many lobbying spouses, Anderson was a prominent lobbyist even before her personal relationship with Naifeh began. The spouses argue they have the right to make a living the way they choose.
Naifeh, for his part, insists Anderson never lobbies him and claims he has only a vague knowledge of her client list, and both of them say there’s no reason for any legislator to feel that they are working in tandem for or against any bill.
Lobbyists privately scoff at that, however, as meaningless in any practical way even if true because, regardless of what Naifeh or Anderson say, “there’s a fear and apprehension out there among the legislators” that the speaker might retaliate if his wife is crossed, one lobbyist says.
“Jimmy Naifeh doesn’t have to announce to the members of the legislature what bills his wife is working on,” this lobbyist says. “Everyone already knows. I’ve had legislators tell me that they were afraid to vote against Betty Anderson’s bills because of her relationship with Jimmy. AT&T made a conscious decision to hire Betty. They knew what they were getting for it.”
Media You Can Use!
Join the Campaign!
And tens of thousands of voters...