Comcast's charity extends to friends and potential foes

Posted: July 29, 2014

WASHINGTON - Comcast is proud of its philanthropy: It gives millions to help fight cancer, wire computer labs for students, sponsor youth mentoring programs, and more.

But as the cable and Internet giant funds worthy causes, it also gives to groups with high-powered supporters who can help, or hurt, its ambitious business plans.

When Comcast gave $71,000 to the Philadelphia Police Athletic League last year, for example, it backed an organization where U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.), a Comcast booster, is a longtime board member.

The company reported giving $3,595 in honor of another hometown supporter, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), after Comcast hosted a Big Brothers Big Sisters party at its Center City headquarters. The nonprofit gave Fattah a surprise birthday cake and announced his entry into a youth mentoring hall of fame.

And for each of the last five years, Comcast has given $25,000 to the Blanchette Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, named for the late mother of U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D., W.Va.).

Rockefeller chairs a Senate committee that oversees communications issues. Two weeks ago, he led a hearing on Comcast's proposed merger with Time Warner Cable.

"You don't seek," Rockefeller said when asked about the contributions. "If you're in a position like I am, you sometimes get."

The donations are overseen in part by Comcast executive David L. Cohen, cochair of the Comcast Foundation as well as the mastermind and face of its sophisticated political operation.

Over the last two years, Comcast has given $1.64 million to charities affiliated with lawmakers or executive-branch officials, according to its lobbying disclosures.

Telecom rivals Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable reported giving a combined $1.35 million to such charities in that time.

Comcast officials say its donations have nothing to do with its Washington agenda and everything to do with causes it has long supported, regardless of ties to lawmakers.

"It is offensive to suggest our long-term support of community organizations is in any way tied to governmental decisions," spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice wrote in an e-mail. "From our very beginnings as a small company in Tupelo, Miss., being involved in the local community and supporting community organizations has been in our DNA."

Comcast donated $16.8 million from its charitable foundation in 2013, along with $415 million in corporate cash and other aid, such as public service announcements, she said.

Many of the donations are made without the knowledge or solicitation of lawmakers but are disclosed on federal forms "out of an abundance of caution," she wrote.

(Brady said he didn't know of the PAL donation or seek it - "I wish I would have known, I would have taken credit for it.")

Even so, ethics groups say such donations, though lawful, can be another path to access and influence, along with giving to lawmakers' campaigns.

"It's getting pretty obvious that this is a useful means of buying influence for those entities that can afford it," said Craig Holman of the nonpartisan group Public Citizen.

Organizations tied to Hispanic, black, and Asian-Pacific American congressional caucuses have received some of Comcast's most frequent donations, some as large as $100,000.

In turn, lawmakers in those caucuses and numerous minority civic and business groups - as well as the Philadelphia PAL - wrote federal officials to support Comcast's last big move, its 2011 purchase of NBCUniversal. On its website, Comcast highlighted the support it won from community groups.

The New York Times reported in February that 54 nonprofits that got Comcast donations publicly backed the NBCU deal.

Fattah, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, one of the top recipients of Comcast donations, was lead writer on a letter signed by 11 caucus members urging the Federal Communications Commission to approve that purchase. The 2010 letter praised Comcast's commitment to African American programming and hiring.

Fattah said it was those qualities that earned the caucus members' support, not donations.

Comcast "is a great corporate citizen," he said in an interview. "Just like ads don't influence what runs in the newspaper, support for the foundation doesn't equate to support for any other activity."

Similarly, 13 Latino members of Congress signed another 2010 letter of support for a company that has given generously to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) wrote the FCC separately, touting Comcast's commitments to the Latino community.

Menendez said the endorsements stemmed from an agreement between Cohen and Hispanic lawmakers that included adding a Hispanic member to Comcast's board, not donations.

"If Comcast's money was going to buy them anything, it would have bought them support without having requirements," Menendez said in an interview.

Lobbyists and entities that employ them must disclose charitable donations linked to federal officials or to events honoring those officials as part of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, passed after the Jack Abramoff ethics scandal. The law does not limit such giving.

Donations often come in the form of buying tables or sponsorships at events where lawmakers are recognized, said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation and a former Inquirer reporter.

"By donating to the organization and getting the face time at the event, the member knows that you donated," Allison said.

Sometimes, generosity toward stirring causes and cozy access can seem inextricable.

At many charity galas, lobbyists and corporate officials mingle with lawmakers as they show mutual support for the same cause. In Cohen's case, that means his charitable role sometimes has him taking pictures with or presenting awards to the same high-ranking senators and House members whom he will also visit to press Comcast's policy priorities in meetings or high-profile public hearings.

But Rockefeller, like other officials, said Comcast's charity has "no effect whatsoever" on policy decisions. "Money is not my biggest need," Rockefeller said.

Indeed, he sharply questioned Comcast's NBCU purchase, and at his recent hearing on the Time Warner Cable merger asked questions sympathetic to the deal's critics.

He also playfully nudged Cohen to keep his statements brief: "You can do that, David. You can do that."


jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.inquirer.com/capitolinq

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