Comcast goes for shock and awe

Comcast is waging a campaign of shock and awe for its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable by fielding one of the biggest lobbying teams ever seen in Washington. 

The company has added seven lobbying firms to its roster since first proposing the deal earlier this year, and it is adopting a posture of overwhelming force to try to win approval from federal regulators.

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Comcast’s lobbying roster was already one of the largest in the city; the company had 33 firms working on its behalf at the start of the year. Since the announcement, that total has increased to 40 firms.

The new hires have given Comcast extensive connections to federal agencies and congressional committees that are vetting the merger.

Lobbyists working for the company include former aides for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the House and Senate Judiciary committees, in addition to the Justice Department, the Federal Communications Commission and former top officials within the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

One prominent tech lobbyist said mergers require a larger K Street team than the usual legislative fights.

“You’ve got the attention of a lot of regulators and members of Congress specifically scrutinizing your company,” said the lobbyist, who is not working on the deal but asked to remain anonymous. “Companies find it particularly meaningful to have a team that understands how those environments work.”

“If you’ve worked on the committees, or if you’ve worked in an agency overseeing a transaction like this, you’ve got knowledge about how the process works and credibility with the staff — it’s that simple.”

Joseph Gibson of The Gibson Group, which started lobbying for Comcast in April, has held several prominent roles with the House Judiciary Committee, whose members grilled Comcast executives for four hours earlier this month. Gibson also worked at the Justice Department, including a stint advising the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division.

Another heavyweight on the Comcast roster is Louis Dupart, a veteran of Capitol Hill, the Defense Department and the CIA who’s now at the Normandy Group. He says on his firm’s website that he “has had multiple successes at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission on major anti-trust reviews for DuPont, Google, People Soft and other companies.”

The Normandy Group signed Comcast as a client last month. Another lobbyist at the firm, Krista Stark, served as legislative director to Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) when he was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Democratic and Republican political operatives, including ones with close ties to leadership in both parties, are also out in force for the company.

Marc Lampkin, the managing partner of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck’s Washington office, has ties to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and bills himself as “a close confidante to a number of key Republican members of the both the House and Senate.”

Justin Gray of Gray Global Advisors, another Comcast hire, has ties to Democrats as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Corporate Advisory Council

The biography on his firm’s website credits him with leading “engagement strategies with respect to antitrust and FCC approvals of mergers and other consolidation transactions on behalf of leading satellite radio and cable providers.”

Comcast’s rise as a lobbying powerhouse happened rapidly. In 2011, the year its merger with NBC Universal was approved, the company poured more than $19 million into its Washington advocacy efforts, breaking into Washington’s top 20 spenders, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

In 2013, Comcast almost spent the most on lobbying of any corporation, coming in second only to defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

Putala Strategies has been lobbying for Comcast since 2009 and garnered the largest retainer of any of the company’s outside firms during the first quarter of 2014, earning $100,000 in the year’s first three months.

Christopher Putala, the firm’s owner, is a former vice president of public policy at Earthlink and the vice president of congressional affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association. Before going into the private sector, Putala worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Duberstein Group, Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck and Forbes-Tate each earned $90,000 from Comcast during the first quarter, and each firm is armed with former aides and officials.

Advocates are worried about the potential conflict of interest that comes with the Capitol Hill’s “revolving door” into the private sector.

“Though Comcast is not alone in its revolving door lobby strategy, what is unprecedented is the gravity of the revolving door abuse now being employed by a small handful of very wealthy communications firms,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen.

He pointed to records compiled by the CRP that shows about 82 percent of Comcast’s lobbying squad in 2014 had worked in the public sector before going to K Street. For Google and Verizon, those numbers were 80 percent and 82 percent, respectively. 

“This is nothing short of behemoth businesses within an industry fighting a war both amongst themselves and against federal regulators by employing armies with direct access to government,” Holman said.

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