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WI: Cable Bill Foes Irked at Being Listed as Backers

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Created 07/09/2007 - 10:07am

From: Wisconsin State Journal [1]

Cable Bill Foes Irked at Being Listed as Backers

July 5, 2007
By Mark Pitsch

At the Democratic Party convention last week Cynthia Laitman urged delegates to oppose legislation pushed by telecommunications giant AT&T designed to bring competition to cable television.

But on Tuesday the Edgewood College professor learned that an advocacy group supporting the legislation identified her as one of hundreds of constituents of Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, who support SB 107 and AB 207, two bills that would allow companies to offer cable anywhere in the state.

“I’m absolutely furious about this,” Laitman said. “I think this is an outrage and they need to be accountable. They cannot fraudulently use peoples’ good names to forward their own vested interests.”

The list of alleged supporters given to Risser, prepared by cable competition advocates TV4US, also included two high-profile opponents of the legislation: former mayor Paul Soglin and lawyer Ed Garvey. Both have posted criticism of the legislation on their blogs.

Soglin, Garvey and Laitman said they are baffled by how TV4US obtained their names and addresses and angry that the group gave Risser incorrect information about their position on the bills.

Thad Nation, a political consultant who is executive director of TV4US, said the organization has collected the names of more than 30,000 Wisconsin residents who support the legislation. Each person had to submit their names and addresses to the group through a postcard, over a toll-free telephone number or on the group’s Web site, he said.

“In all three cases we’re being very clear that we’re speaking on behalf of consumers in support of consumer choice to the Legislature,” he said. “You had to take a proactive step to get on this” list.

But Laitman and Soglin said they didn’t sign up in support of the cable competition bills through TV4US. Garvey said he directed an intern to the TV4US Web site to get information about the group and that the intern may have submitted an e-mail address to the group. But Garvey said he doubts the intern would have given the group his home residence.

Soglin said he is an AT&T customer and Laitman said she was a customer of the company until some time within the last year. Garvey said he is not an AT&T customer.

Nation and Jeff Bentoff, an AT&T spokesman, said the list of supporters was not created from the company’s customer database.

Mordecai Lee, a governmental affairs professor at UW-Milwaukee, said the situation is embarrassing to TV4US and AT&T.

“These are the pitfalls of what’s called astroturf advocacy,” Lee said. “Here you’ve got essentially slick (public relations) specialists who are trying to mimic grass roots activities and now it’s blowing up in their faces.”

Controversial legislation

The video competition bills have been among the most controversial in the current legislative session. They would create a statewide franchise agreement that would allow providers to operate anywhere in the state.

Proponents say the bills would allow companies like AT&T to provide video competition to local cable companies. But opponents say the bills would reduce consumer protections, limit funding for public access channels and give the state and local governments little regulatory power over the companies.

AT&T has engaged in a massive lobbying campaign in an effort to get the bill passed, employing more than a dozen lobbyists, including, until recently, the state Democratic Party chairman.

It also funds TV4US — though Nation and Bentoff refused to say how much the company has given the group — which has used television ads, a toll-free phone number and a Web site to encourage support for the bills.

In April, TV4US delivered to lawmakers massive binders that included on separate pages the names and addresses of supposed supporters of the cable competition bills.

Risser received two binders, which he estimated contained the names of at least 1,000 of his constituents.

He set aside the binders until the Senate finished its version of the 2007-09 state budget. But then he and aides began poring over it, and they found the names of Soglin, Garvey and Laitman.

Risser, who opposes the cable competition legislation, said he now questions the validity of all the names contained in the binders.

“I’ve been in the Legislature a long time and I can’t remember having this much misrepresentation presented in a matter,” said Risser. “We just picked out three examples. We don’t know how many more are in there.”

Nation acknowledged that TV4US didn’t verify the accuracy of every name in its database of alleged supporters of the cable bills. But he said the group has been clear when it solicits consumers’ names that they are being asked to support the bills and that they would be used to contact lawmakers.

Nation said the names are intended for lawmakers only, and that they would not be used for any other purpose, including advertising.

But Soglin said now that the binders are in possession of state lawmakers, they are a public record accessible to anyone.

Other discrepancies

Risser’s discovery last week wasn’t the first time a lawmaker found the name of a cable competition opponent listed in a TV4US binder as a supporter.

Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, said she found her name among the proponents in the binder delivered to her. She voted against the bill in the Assembly.

Pope-Roberts said she didn’t provide any personal information to TV4US, and that the binder contained her previous address and her formal name, Sondra M. Pope-Roberts, which she almost never uses.

“That’s what made it kind of curious to me,” Pope-Roberts said of the use of her formal name.

Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, said the binder he received from TV4US included his name as a supporter of the cable competition bill even though he voted against it in the Assembly. Parisi said he had asked an aide to go to the TV4US Web site and submit an e-mail address so that he can receive updates from the group. But he said the aide probably also gave the group his name and address.

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