Companies Seeking Immunity Donate to Senator
By ERIC LICHTBLAU and SCOTT SHANE | October 23, 2007
WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 — Executives at the two biggest phone companies contributed more than $42,000 in political donations to Senator John D. Rockefeller IV this year while seeking his support for legal immunity for businesses participating in National Security Agency eavesdropping.
The surge in contributions came from a Who’s Who of executives at the companies, AT&T and Verizon, starting with the chief executives and including at least 50 executives and lawyers at the two utilities, according to campaign finance reports.
The money came primarily from a fund-raiser that Verizon held for Mr. Rockefeller in March in New York and another that AT&T sponsored for him in May in San Antonio.
Mr. Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, emerged last week as the most important supporter of immunity in devising a compromise plan with Senate Republicans and the Bush administration.
A measure approved by the intelligence panel on Thursday would add restrictions on the eavesdropping and extend retroactive immunity to carriers that participated in it. President Bush secretly approved the program after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Rockefeller’s office said Monday that the sharp increases in contributions from the telecommunications executives had no influence on his support for the immunity provision.
“Any suggestion that Senator Rockefeller would make policy decisions based on campaign contributions is patently false,” Wendy Morigi, a spokeswoman for him, said. “He made his decision to support limited immunity based on the Intelligence Committee’s careful review of the situation and our national security interests.”
AT&T and Verizon have been lobbying hard to insulate themselves from suits over their reported roles in the security agency program by gaining legal immunity from Congress. The effort included meetings with Mr. Rockefeller and other members of the intelligence panels, officials said.
The companies face suits from customers who say their privacy was violated. Administration officials say they worry that the suits, pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, could bankrupt the utilities.
House Democrats have balked at the immunity, refusing to include it in a bill they drew up and saying they would not even consider it unless the administration produced long-sought documents on the origins of the program.
Mr. Rockefeller received little in the way of contributions from AT&T or Verizon executives before this year, reporting $4,050 from 2002 through 2006. From last March to June, he collected a total of $42,850 from executives at the two companies. The increase was first reported by the online journal Wired, using data compiled by the Web site OpenSecrets.org.
Neither Mr. Rockefeller’s predecessor as committee chairman or his House counterpart received increases in contributions from the phone companies, records show. But industry executives have given significant contributions to a number of other Washington politicians, including two presidential contenders, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain.
A spokeswoman for AT&T, Claudia B. Jones, said contributions from its executives related to Mr. Rockefeller’s role on the Senate Commerce Committee, not immunity or other questions before the Intelligence Committee.
“Many AT&T executives work with the leaders of both the House and Senate Commerce Committees on a daily basis and have come to know them over the years,” Ms. Jones said.
She added that although industry executives and politicians might not always agree, it is “commonplace for AT&T employees to regularly and voluntarily participate in the political process with their own funds.”
Ms. Morigi, in Mr. Rockefeller’s office, said the senator had had numerous meetings with his aides about immunity for a year and came to believe that the carriers needed legal protection to ensure cooperation on national security operations.
On other questions, she said, he has disagreed with the industry. Ms. Morigi pointed to his sponsorship of a separate bill to give cellphone subscribers more protections in their contracts. That bill, unlike the immunity provision, has been vigorously opposed by the industry.
She also said that the increased contributions from industry executives reflected a record fund-raising year for Mr. Rockefeller and that his contributions from many sectors had “skyrocketed.”
Mr. Rockefeller is up for re-election next year. No opponents have declared their intention to try and unseat him.
The senator has raised $3.1 million this year, in part through 107 campaign events, according to his office. He has promised not to use any of his personal fortune to finance his campaign.
“The idea that John Rockefeller could be bought is kind of ridiculous,” said Matt Bennett, vice president for Third Way, a moderate Democratic policy group that has supported immunity for the phone carriers.
“That these companies are going to focus their lobbying efforts where their business interests are is no revelation,” Mr. Bennett said. “That’s the standard Washington way of doing business. But you’re not going to buy a Rockefeller.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a group promoting stricter campaign finance laws, said contributions like those to Mr. Rockefeller created an appearance problem that “corrode public confidence” in the political system.
“We have so many examples like this of people on relevant committees receiving these contributions from people who are under their jurisdictions,” Ms. McGehee said. “It’s sad to say, but it is pretty much business as usual in Washington. And it shows why so many Americans just shake their heads over the way Washington works.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.