Prominent Ties Among Comcast Hires
Tuesday, March 7, 2006
For more than a year, Maryland first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich has been executive producer and star of a largely unnoticed half-hour television talk show about drug and alcohol abuse.
Comcast Cable Communications Inc. paid her an undisclosed sum to host 16 episodes of "Live Right: Straight Talk on Substance Abuse," which can be seen only in the cable provider's on-demand library.
Ehrlich's day job represents more than an abrupt change in career path for the governor's wife, a lawyer by training. It also illustrates the reach of Comcast, the state's dominant cable provider with more than 1 million subscribers, as it has repeatedly given work to prominent public officials, their relatives or their friends.
Those hired by Comcast and its affiliates have included two members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, two sons of a key General Assembly committee chairman and former county executives from Prince George's and Harford counties.
Responsible for most of that hiring was Stephen A. Burch, who until recently served as president of Comcast's Atlantic Division, according to one former and one current senior Comcast official and some of the workers. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said that within the company, the recruits were known informally as "FOBs" -- Friends of Burch.
None of these politically connected workers has been accused of wrongdoing, and those who could be reached said they were hired on merit.
Still, dual roles such as these raise questions about possible ethics violations and conflicts of interest. Such hires also illustrate a discreet way that some corporations can seek influence with decision makers, not just in Maryland but on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
"Comcast has to go before every governing body in the state for something," said Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "If they're giving jobs to people because of who they are, it looks a lot like payola."
It is, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), "quite clearly a conflict of interest."
In some cases, Comcast's personnel moves in Maryland came amid public policy debates affecting the company's bottom line. For instance, Comcast hired then-Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell's two sons shortly after the Baltimore County Democrat championed legislation that has enabled cable companies to collect millions in late fees.
Ehrlich was first hired as a lawyer by Comcast when her husband, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), sat on the House of Representatives' telecommunications subcommittee. She was brought back as a producer in 2004 -- as the cable giant began facing competition over franchises from Verizon Communications. That battle has not come before regulators in Maryland, as it has in some states.
Comcast spokesmen said the company has no reason to suspect that Burch's hiring decisions violated company policy but added that, because he has left to lead a British company, they would neither discuss nor defend his actions.