AT$T Tells Employees to Support Texas Politician

Posted on January 16, 2008 - 8:30am.

Note: File under political payback. In the letter to Employees, AT&T president reminds employees that they owe King for helping to pass SB5, the first state-wide video franchise passed in the country - at AT&T's request.

from: Star Telegram

AT&T letter supporting King draws criticism
By Aman Batheja and Jay Root
Star-Telegram staff writer

* AT&T letter to Rep. King (PDF) External Link
* PoliTex blog: On politics from Austin to D.C. External Link

A letter from the president of phone giant AT&T Texas urging employees and retirees to help re-elect powerful Republican state Rep. Phil King is raising eyebrows in a hotly contested race.

Jim Epperson sent the memo last week to employees and retirees who live in King's Weatherford-area House district. It urged them to go door to door for King last weekend and to "make the time to help your state representative win this important race."

AT&T calls the letter an entirely normal and legal effort by its political action committee, AT&T Texas PAC. Epperson is both company president and PAC chairman. But critics say it's unusual and ethically questionable for the head of a major company to call on employees to help an ally at the ballot box.

"I am contacting you about a political race that is extremely important for Texas House District 61, and for our company," the letter begins.

King heads the powerful House Regulated Industries Committee and in 2005 helped pass a controversial bill, with strong backing from AT&T, that allows phone companies to better compete with the cable TV industry. The bill has become a model for telecommunications overhaul in other states.

"Texas law has long prohibited corporations from contributing to campaigns," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, head of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a liberal watchdog group. "The contributions can come in money but also from labor, and we think it's inappropriate for a regulated industry to be turning their staff people out to support a sitting legislator who is in a position to grant them large favors in return."

PAC law

While corporate donations to state political campaigns are prohibited in Texas, the law is vague and ridden with loopholes. In addition, corporations are allowed to set up political action committees, or PACs, to fund electoral activities through donations from employees who elect to join.

AT&T spokesman Ted Wagnon called the block-walk drive for King "routine," but he declined to provide examples of when similar efforts were made for other lawmakers. "It is legal and ethical for a PAC to encourage its members and other parties to engage in political activities," Wagnon said. "No company money is involved in this."

Epperson said in his letter that King is needed in Austin to take the lead on "important communications issues" expected to come up in the next two legislative sessions. Wagnon declined to specify the issues.

"I think we're always interested in anything that would increase consumer choice and promote competition," Wagnon said.

King faces Joe Tison, a former Weatherford mayor, in the March primary. The winner will take on Democrat Charles William Randolph in the November general election.

King said he was "delighted" by the support from AT&T Texas PAC.

"I'll ask anybody to write a letter on my behalf," King said. "That's just a staple of my campaigning."

King said he was not aware of any current or former AT&T employees campaigning with him over the weekend.

While campaigning, he said, few, if any, constituents have expressed concern over his work on telecommunications and utilities.

"My constituents are telling me they want lower electric rates and they want lower telephone bills and they want high-speed Internet service and cable TV in our area," King said.

Close ties

King has faced criticism in the past that he is too closely tied to the companies he regulates in the House.

In 2005, a high-powered lobbyist who represented regulated companies including AT&T's predecessor, SBC, hosted an end-of-session dinner for King's committee in the lobbyist's $4 million Austin home. King caught flak for the event but maintained that lobbyists' efforts did not affect his judgment.

Tison has made criticism of King's work on the House Regulated Industries Committee a centerpiece of his campaign.

"I think [the letter] adds to the perception that ... he does spend more time working for the industries than he has doing things for his constituents in Parker and Wise counties," Tison said.

AMAN BATHEJA, 817-390-7695
JAY ROOT, 512-476-4294

( categories: State Franchises | TEXAS )