Daddy Comcast

Saturday, March 11, 2006

WANT A CUSHY job with a nice salary at Comcast, Maryland's dominant cable provider? Well, who's your daddy?

As a portrait of everyday ethical bankruptcy, The Post's eye-opening account of Comcast Cable Communications Inc.'s dealings with Maryland's high and mighty is a gem. The company appears to have positioned itself as a welfare agency for the well connected, currying favor with key officials for years by putting them and their relatives on the payroll.

A worldly cynic -- wise to the ways that some multinational firms grease the levers of power in the developing world with bribes and favors for the rich and mighty -- might not judge Comcast too harshly. But what about those who accepted Comcast jobs and pocketed its money? Don't they have the slightest ethical sense?

Evidently not. As reported by The Post's Matthew Mosk and Eric Rich, it seems that practically no one resisted Comcast's blandishments or its cash. Democrats and Republicans, spouses, sons and daughters of elected officials -- all of them happily hopped aboard the Comcast bandwagon, sometimes at junctures when the cable giant was seeking or had recently received crucial approvals from elected officials.

Exhibit A is Maryland first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich. Having worked for Comcast as a lawyer (while her husband, then a member of Congress, was on the House telecommunications subcommittee), Mrs. Ehrlich is now producer and host of a little-seen, on-demand talk show on substance abuse. For 16 shows, she is paid an annual salary of $55,000 by Comcast; that's more than $3,400 per half-hour show.

Mrs. Ehrlich, a former prosecutor, should have had the ethical sense to just say no to Comcast -- and certainly to its money. Comcast is facing stiff competition over franchises from Verizon Communications, a battle that may well come before state officials. And Mrs. Ehrlich frequently sits in on her husband's meetings. At this point, any matter involving Comcast that comes before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will be tainted by his wife's employment; he should recuse himself.

Incredibly, the Ehrlichs tried to dismiss The Post article as an attack on working women. "I hope women are offended by the article," Mrs. Ehrlich said. Nice try. In fact, men have displayed equally bad judgment in accepting Comcast's corporate largesse.

For example, Comcast hired then-Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell's two sons soon after he pushed through a law that opened the door for cable companies to collect millions of dollars in revenue. Mr. Bromwell, by the way, is under indictment for corruption and fraud in a separate case.

In another instance, Comcast was represented in its dealings with the University of Maryland -- where it sought to provide cable service to dorms and negotiate naming rights to a basketball arena -- by a public relations firm run by David H. Nevins, a member of the board that oversees the university system. A year after Comcast closed a $20 million deal for naming rights, the company hired Mr. Nevins as president of its regional sports network. Mr. Nevins, now chair of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, says he has been careful to recuse himself from board votes related to Comcast. But his two-hatted approach, as a representative of both the state university system and a private corporation doing business with the universities, was unseemly. And his decision to accept the job at the sports network may have violated state ethics law.

The list of others with the right access whom Comcast has placed on the payroll seems to grow longer each day. They include Melanie Miller, daughter of state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.; Wayne K. Curry, former Prince George's county executive; and the wife of P.

Michael Errico, a senior official who worked for Mr. Curry's administration. Prince George's, which like other Maryland counties has the power to grant cable franchises, was a battleground for Comcast in 2001 when a rival, Starpower Communications, tried (and failed) to establish a franchise there.

Was Comcast rewarding Mr. Curry for services rendered? Seeking preferential treatment from Mr. Miller for future legislative fights? Both men say no. Comcast's own explanation is that hiring the well connected violates no company policy and may, in the case of former officials, "add value" to its workforce.

The Comcast hirings may not have broken the law; it remains to be seen whether they violated state ethics standards. Nonetheless, they confirm the cynical popular view that political decisions aren't made on the merits and that discreet

favors for connected insiders are the lubricant of corporate advancement. As the Ehrlichs scoff at the notion of ridding government of the taint of favoritism, little wonder the public holds its nose at the stench of politics as usual.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company