A few months before Alexandria awarded its cable television franchise, a group of local cable investors met with their attorney and fellow-stockholder, Lee G. Lovett, to review the competition and plan an appearance before the city council.
One of those investors, the man who was then chairman of Alexandria Cablevision Co., recalls that Lovett told them in that late 1978 meeting to match or improve on their competitors' promises.
"He (Lovett) wrote an application," says Charles Henry (Bee) Smith Jr., "and we're still living down some of the promises he made."
Lovett, a recognized Washington authority on communications law, denies having caused problems for the Alexandria firm. He says he never has advised any of his many cable TV clients to promise more than they can deliver -- only to "propose the most that is deliverable."
The lanky, 48-year-old Lovett doesn't dispute, however, that in more than two decades of scrapping, planning and hard work, he has established himself as one of the kingpins of the cable TV industry in the Washington area. "I'm known as having been involved in more franchising processes than any other person alive," he says.
Exactly how valuable an asset he has been in the area's latest cable sweepstakes should become clear today, when the Fairfax county supervisors select either the Lovett-backed Fairfax Telecommunications Inc. or an affiliate of Media General Inc. of Richmond for a cable franchise said to be one of the most valuable in the country.
If Fairfax Telecommunications wins, Lovett's Washington law firm ultimately could receive a bonus of up to $1 million or more from Tele-Communications, Inc. of Denver, the local group's 49% owner and financial backer. Lovett says the bonus -- $150,000 plus $5 for each of the county's 200,000 dwelling units -- is "similar to the commission that a broker would charge for arranging a sale of the (cable) system." The bonus would be for securing financing rather than for legal services, Lovett says.
Such bonuses are only one aspect of the cable bidding in Fairfax that critics say will inflate the costs of cable service. The cable firms "can make any kind of arrangement they want. . . It is just money paid out that people will have to pay for in their rates," says Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore, who has been an outspoken critic of the cable industry's franchising tactics.
The other firm bidding for the Fairfax franchise is represented locally by one of the Northern Virginia's most influential law firms, Hazel, Beckhorn and Hanes. Grayson P. Hanes, a partner in the firm, said Media General is paying the firm about $125 per hour for its services.
The tactic of both Fairfax applicants that has angered the county board most is one that some say Lovett excells at: organizing influential local citizens into locally-based companies that can lobby for the franchise. "I'm not a politician. I'm apolitical," says Lovett. "But I know when you don't have the politics, you're in deep trouble."
Alexandria's Smith recalls Lovett expressing the same sentiment in more practical terms: "He said, 'Make sure you have a good friend of every councilman in your group.'"
In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, Lovett -- frequently with his onetime law partner, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Frederick W. Ford -- has helped organize politically powerful cable companies, and has directed their efforts with a prizefighter's zeal. It has sometimes, he acknowledges, earned him the reputation of being "some damn loudmouth lawyer from Washington."
It has also made him a voice that many listen to when a multimillion dollar cable franchise is about to be granted. "He's a hard fighter, and people react to him in different ways," says L. Gary Byrd, president of Fairfax Telecommunications. "Some of our stockholders think he's a veritable Clarence Darrow, and some think he comes on a little too glib. . . but There's no question that he's been an asset to us."
After what he says have been more than 200 franchising battles across the country, Lovett can boast of an impressive array of victories (including Arlington, Alexandria, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties), and relatively few defeats (Prince George's County and Rockville.)
Opinions about Lovett and his style are as varied as the cable TV markets -- Seattle to Buenos Aires -- in which he has worked. His supporters, like Fairfax's Byrd, view him as a brilliant strategist whose keen intellect and unflagging energy have carried the day in many a difficult franchise fight.
His critics say he has left a legacy of hard feelings. They say Lovett collected high legal fees, and that he left them the chore of keeping local governments happy once a franchise was awarded.
Lovett rejects such criticism. "We universally advise all cable groups to propose only what they can deliver in the future, but to take full advantage of the almost revolutionary explosions of cable technology in doing so," he said in a written response to questions.
Some of Lovett's strongest critics come from Arlington and Alexandria, which were among the first jurisdictions in the area to award cable franchises. In Arlington, Arlington Telecommunications Corp. (Artec), the firm Lovett helped win the county franchise in 1972, nearly collapsed last year. "Many or most of the problems that the Arlington system has had with its franchise can be attributed to the over-promises made by the cable team during the initial franchising process," says Thomas W. Richards, Artec president.
Richards cites the commitments by the fledgling cable company to provide public access and local origination programming, and to dedicate a half-dozen channels for public programming. Although Richards concedes that local shareholders agreed to all the provisions of the proposal, he maintains that they depended on Lovett and others to prepare their application and were not fully aware of what it contained.
Lovett rejects the criticism in Arlington. Arlington's financial problems, he says, are "minor and temporary," and were caused by adverse economic conditions and regulatory battles.
"The economic climate at the time of the Arlington award was considerably depressed, and the franchisee also faced a difficult battle before the Federal Communications Commission with the four VHF television licensees in the District, including a TV station then owned by the Washington Post," he says. "These stations attempted to thwart the efforts of Arlington residents to receive Baltimore TV signals over the Arlington CATV system."
The firm Lovett helped in Alexandria also encountered financial troubles and was sold two years after the franchise was awarded to a subsidiary of The Tribune Co. of Chicago. The deal nonetheless brought healthy profits to its local investors. Stock listed in Ford's name, for the benefit of himself and others, yielded about $1 million. Smith, who now serves as the chairman of the Tribune-owned cable system there, says Lovett wrote the group's cable application and included more than the company could reasonably deliver. Smith acknowledges that he agreed to the provisions of the proposal, but says he and other investors inexperienced in cable relied on Lovett's judgment and did not read the entire proposal before submitting it to the city.
Smith believes that Lovett's firm billed the Alexandria group for unnecessary legal work. "They actually prepared an application for the Alexandria franchise five years before there was an ordinance," he said.
Lovett responds that his law firm offered the Alexandria company good advice, sent them bills that were lower than his standard rate, and prepared an application well in advance in an effort to educate the city council about the complicated questions associated with cable franchising.
"At the time that we were retained originally by the Alexandria group, the best initial strategy to encourage a city to go forward with its consideration of a franchise application was to prepare a draft document that could be informally reviewed by city officials along with the applicant's request to accept and process applications," he says.
". . . Over the years, we have found that those applicants who provide the most assistance in the preapplication period tend to receive extra credit for those good faith efforts in helping the city develop the process." Besides, Lovett adds, "our advice overall must have some benefit because our clients have prevailed in more cases than not."
Ford, Lovett's law partner at the time, also disagrees with Smith. "It's easy for people to criticize me. People know me," says Ford, who joined Lovett's law firm in 1970 and left last year in what Lovett describes as a disagreement over workload and fees. "As a matter of fact," says Ford, who lives in Alexandria's Old Town, "they wouldn't have had the franchise at all if it hadn't been for me."
Lovett's performance in Maryland draws mixed reviews.
Officials of Telecommunications of Rockville, Inc. (Telcor), a defunct Rockville cable group, believe Lovett torpedoed their franchise bid in the city in 1976. Several years earlier, Lovett had advised the group, but represented its opponent at city council hearings after Telcor and Lovett parted ways, Telcor officials say.
"We thought it was totally improper for him to represent both sides (at different times)," says Ed Steers, a biochemist who says Lovett recruited him to be Telcor's president.
"There was never any time when there was any conflict of interest in any Rockville cable representations or activities on our part," Lovett says. When his firm ceased advising Telcor, Lovett says, both sides agreed they should be under no further obligation to one another. Later, when he represented the new group, he knew nothing about Telcor's status, Lovett says. In any event, he says "virtually all of the advice that we had given years earlier to the original group had been rendered wholly obsolete by the passage of time and substantial changes in the industry."
In Prince George's County Lovett's flamboyance and command of details won him admirers on the county council, even though his firm's application was rejected. "If the franchise was given on presentation alone, he would have been head and shoulders above everyone else," said Council Member Ann Landry Lombardi.
In Baltimore County Ford and Lovett helped win a franchise for Calvert TeleCommunications Corp. (Caltec), which began cable service five years after after it had won the award. Lovett's work is praised by Caltec president Leonard P. Berger. "We spent a lot of money in the franchising process, but they did a good job, and they served us well," he says. "These guys are talented. They got the job done for us."
Politics aside, Lovett is known to plunge into a franchise fight with what William Stanhagen, one of his cable partners in Arlington, describes as the fury of a gladiator. He lived up to that reputation last month, punctuating a crowded, steamy hearing room in Fairfax with charges that his competitor was "stealing" material from his company's application and that county staff had been "captivated" by his opponents. (Both charges were denied by Media General and the county staff.)
"I think they could have found a much more effective spokesman," Fairfax Supervisor Moore said after the hearing. "He was too slick."
Lovett, who looks younger than his 48 years, attended law school at George Washington University, where among his classmates were two future cable business partners, Stanford Parris, now a Northern Virginia congressman, and Stanhagen, now a Virginia Republican committeeman.
Lovett worked on Capitol Hill for a few years, he says, and then began practicing law with his father Eliot, a pioneering radio and television attorney. Lovett's father, according to Lee's friend John N. Papajohn, was "an 1890s gentleman, starched-collar Scot" -- a marked contrast in style to his son's open collars, gold jewelry and wavy hair.
The elder Lovett died in 1963, and Lee Lovett, searching for a way to maintain and expand the practice, had the "shrewd insight" to see possibilities in cable television when few other lawyers knew what cable was, according to Papajohn, then a partner in Lovett's firm.
"We started doing research -- who gives these franchises out?" Papajohn recalls. And when they learned that county commissioners and city council members were the regulators, Papajohn says. "We realized, they don't know what the hell they're doing. If we can get expert in this stuff, we could make a hell of a lot of money."
Since then, Lovett says he has handled "sledloads" of franchise cases, as well as scores of cases for radio and television stations. Currently, he is a general partner of firms in Washington and Baltimore that are competing for FCC licenses to provide a new form of radio telephone service in the area. Among his opponents for those licenses is The Washington Post Company.
Lovett has published poetry, written books on communications law -- --"I found there's no money in that, so I stopped doing it" -- and learned karate. Most of his considerable energies, however, have been spent on franchising battles. "I like to think I know how to attack an opponent," he says. "I love to debate."
Lovett says he enjoys the thrill of the battle more than the management tasks that follow, and has always helped deliver good cable television systems. He says he has never invested in a company he didn't have faith in, nor has he made claims he did not believe to be true.
"I'm only interested in winning and making money, legally and morally," he says. "That's all I care about."