Reading Time: 6 minutes

Note to readers: This story has been reposted. Since the report was originally released, the Center for Public Integrity has changed the way it calculates lobbying expenditures to reflect a more stringent methodology for determining the total amounts. The change was made to correct the potential overstatement of totals. Figures or relevant text that have been changed are indicated with asterisks. (2/28/2006)

What do nearly all of the tight-knit group of congressional aides who crafted the pro-business Telecommunications Act of 1996 now have in common? Salaries as industry lobbyists.

Some call it cashing in. Some call it an opportunity they can’t pass up. Others call it an offer they can’t refuse.

“Some people had no choice but to go through the revolving door because you have to make a living on what you do and what you know,” said Christopher McLean, who went on to senior roles in the Clinton administration and then left government for a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm following President George W. Bush’s 2000 election victory.

Whatever their motives, the aides have taken the common route from political staff member to champion of private interests.

Through press accounts, primary sources and detailed interviews, The Center for Public Integrity has identified a short list of the 15 staffers most involved in the years-long process of drafting the 1996 act. Thirteen of them, it turns out, became lobbyists, and another is a lawmaker who gets generous financial support for his campaigns from telephone companies. Another worked for a telecom lobbyist before helping to draft the law.

Those staffers have defended the integrity of their work on the 1996 act, but some telecom observers have their doubts. Adam Thierer, for example, an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, has called it a fundamentally flawed law loaded with contradictory giveaways and payoffs to various industry players.

The Center identified at least 199 current or former Federal Communications Commission officials and congressional staff who have worked as registered lobbyists, many leaving the FCC to work for the communications industry and later returning to government. Most notable among them is FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy. Abernathy was appointed by President George W. Bush after executive jobs in government affairs for US West (since acquired by Qwest Communications International) and AirTouch Communications Inc.

Abernathy declined a request for an interview.

“I think there’s no doubt that there’s what some people call an almost incestuous relationship,” Cato’s Thierer said. “The real question at the end of the day for someone like me is, What are they fighting over? They’re fighting over control of the government’s ability to influence private decision making.”

Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), who worked on the act as a staffer to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), now holds the most prominent position of the group, having run for office immediately after leaving Lott’s payroll. Pickering may not have gone to work for the industry, but the phone companies nevertheless found a way to boost his career: along with their employees, they’ve donated $264,000 to his campaigns since 1998. That’s just a small slice of the more than 35,000 contributions—totaling more than $60 million—the industry has made to House, Senate and presidential candidates.

Records show that since 2000, telephone interests have paid for 10 trips for Pickering or members of his staff, at a cost of more than $11,000. Among the trips: a two-day outing to New Orleans during Mardi Gras that Pickering took at the expense of the trade group representing cell phone providers.

Pickering’s office did not respond to the Center’s request for an interview.

John Windhausen Jr., a former Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation staffer reporting to Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.), went on to head the Association for Local Telecommunication Services, a trade group for local phone-service providers that compete against the major phone companies.

“It wasn’t going to get any better than that. After the ’96 act I’d accomplished everything a staffer could accomplish,” Windhausen told the Center.

Of course, congressional and FCC staffers aren’t alone in moving from public servants to telephone industry lobbyists. They are joined by FCC commissioners, administration officials and even members of Congress.

Indeed, at least two congressmen and one senator who played key roles on the 1996 bill became lobbyists whose clients have included one of the “Baby Bell” companies that now appear to be the ultimate winners from the law: former Reps. Jack Fields (R-Texas) and Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) and former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.). At the time the 1996 act passed, Pressler was chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, but lost a tough re-election fight later that year. Bliley was chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The only other lawmaker centrally involved in crafting the 1996 law who has left office is Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.), the veteran politician who retired after his final term ended in January 1997.

Indeed, the Center has found that in 2003 nearly 1,000 lobbyists plied the halls of Congress and the FCC on behalf of the phone companies. The cost to the industry for this swarm has been more than $398 million* since 1998. Last year alone, phone companies spent more than $60 million* on lobbying.

Besides Pickering and Windhausen, the Center identified the following staffers who had major involvement in the ’96 bill:

Earl Comstock: Then a staffer for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), he has gone on to be a partner and head of the telecommunications practice group at the Washington, D.C., law firm Sher & Blackwell. His clients have included Nextel Communications, AT&T and Winstar.

Donald McClellan: Then a Senate commerce committee staffer reporting to Sen. Pressler, he is now chief lobbyist for computer maker Gateway Inc.

Gerard Waldron: Then a committee staffer reporting to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), he is now a lobbyist at the Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burling. His clients there have included satellite powerhouse COMSAT and the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance.

James “J.D.” Derderian: Then a committee staffer for Rep. Bliley (R-Va.), Derderian became a partner in the Cormac Group, where his clients included AT&T, AT&T Wireless, XO Communications and DSL provider Covad Communications. In 2003 he co-founded another lobbying and consulting firm, the Stanton Park Group.

Katie King: Then majority communications counsel for the Senate commerce committee, King is now special counsel in the FCC’s Telecommunications Access Policy Division. While she didn’t leave government to become a lobbyist, she does have a tie to the lobbying industry: Before working on Capitol Hill, King was a lawyer at Wiley Rein & Fielding, one of the biggest telecommunications lobbying firms in D.C.

Kevin Joseph: Then a senior minority counsel for the Senate commerce committee, Joseph went on to jobs with AT&T and Allegiance Telecom Inc. before opening his own lobbying firm in May.

Catherine M. Reid: Then the majority counsel for the House commerce committee, she later worked at cable TV giant Time Warner and at the law and lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, where her clients included the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and phone company LCI International (now Qwest Communications).

David Leach: Then a staffer for Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Leach became a lobbyist at Dewey Ballantine LLP. Earlier this year he started his own lobbying firm with clients including Verizon, SBC Communications and wireless phone provider NextWave Telecom Inc.

Harold Furchtgott-Roth: Then the chief economist for the House commerce committee, he went on to serve as an FCC commissioner and later as a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Last year he started his own company, Furchtgott-Roth Economic Enterprises. While not a registered lobbyist, his Web site advertises services including “development of regulatory strategies.”

Michael Regan: Then a senior staffer on the House commerce committee, Regan went on to be senior vice president of external affairs for NextWave Telecom and now serves as senior vice president of government affairs at News Corp., owner of the Fox broadcasting and cable networks.

Christopher McLean: Then a staffer for Sen. Exon, he helped draft provisions of the act related to rural telephone service and the “universal service” tax fund. He later worked as administrator of the Rural Utilities Service in the Clinton administration. Now he is a lobbyist with the government affairs firm e-Copernicus, where he helps companies and organizations get money from the federal government’s rural service and universal service funds.

Gregory Rohde: Then a staffer for Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Rohde worked with McLean on the rural and universal service aspects of the 1996 bill. He went on to serve as administrator of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration for President Clinton, then resumed his partnership with McLean as president of e-Copernicus. In addition, he serves as head of the E9-1-1 Institute, the nonprofit arm of the Congressional E9-1-1 Caucus. Their clients include BellSouth Corp and Motorola.

Paddy Link: Served as staff director of the Senate commerce committee during the drafting of the 1996 act and went on to other senior congressional staff roles before becoming a lobbyist. Link is now a lobbyist at Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates (part of Hill & Knowlton), where her client list includes MCI Inc.

Kevin Curtin: A staffer on the Senate commerce committee during the drafting of the 1996 act, he is now a lobbyist whose clients include Verizon.

This report is part of the Center’s ongoing examination of the companies that control the nation’s airwaves, telephone and cable lines and the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend to influence policies that affect how electronic communications are regulated in the United States. The survey took roughly eight months and involved the work of as many as a dozen researchers.

Your support is crucial!

Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.