FCC Official Declines to Vote On AT& T Deal

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Federal Communications Commissioner Robert M. McDowell announced yesterday that he would disqualify himself from voting on AT&T's proposed purchase of BellSouth on ethical grounds, depriving the FCC of a potential swing vote that could have broken the stalemate among its Democratic and Republican members.

McDowell, saying he felt compelled to silence speculation over whether he would take part in the vote, accused his colleagues of failing to negotiate in good faith over conditions for approving the $86 billion merger proposed seven months ago.

"It appears that the lingering question of my involvement is being used as another excuse for delay and inaction," he told reporters.

McDowell has said for months that he would not vote because he previously worked as senior vice president for Comptel, an association that lobbied on behalf of companies competing with AT&T and BellSouth. But despite his concern about a possible conflict of interest, the FCC's general counsel, Samuel Feder, ruled this month that McDowell could take part because of an overriding government interest in breaking the deadlock.

McDowell rejected that reasoning and criticized Feder's opinion, saying it overlooked important facts and legal considerations. In particular, he said the opinion did not address the ethics agreement reached during his Senate confirmation process this year in which he pledged not to participate for a year in any matter in which Comptel had been involved.

"While I expected the legal equivalent of body armor, I was handed Swiss cheese," McDowell said.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who asked Feder to issue the opinion, has been urging McDowell to take part in the considerations. Late yesterday, Martin said his aim had been to make sure the commission considered the merger in a timely fashion.

"With Commissioner McDowell having made his decision, I will continue to try to work with my colleagues to bring our consideration of this merger to conclusion," Martin said in a statement.

He also said he respected McDowell's decision to abstain. Though both men are Republicans, their relations have been strained since McDowell joined the FCC.

Martin has been an advocate of approving the merger without conditions. But the two Democratic members have insisted that the deal, which would create a telecommunications giant, include safeguards to ensure competition and protect consumers.

The FCC has repeatedly postponed acting because of the stalemate, and no vote is scheduled.

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