Two weeks ago, Comcast executive Craig A. Snedeker met Montgomery County Council member Howard A. Denis for breakfast to try to ease tensions after two clashes between the council and the cable television company.
In July, over Comcast's protests, the council approved tough new customer-service requirements for companies that provide high-speed Internet access via cable modems. Six weeks later, Comcast attorneys subpoenaed the records of two council members who had supported an unsuccessful attempt by some company employees to organize a union.
"They wanted to try to clear the air," Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) said of the breakfast, adding that Snedeker blamed the subpoenas on an overzealous legal team. "They are like any other entity or person who is trying to do something in the county. They present their case the way everyone else does."
Several other council members and community leaders say there is nothing ordinary about the way Comcast, the country's largest cable provider, presents its case.
The company, with 210,000 subscribers in Montgomery and nearly 1 million in the Washington region, has taken an aggressive and, critics say, sometimes heavy-handed, approach to protecting its interests in Montgomery. Comcast's generosity toward elected officials -- including campaign contributions and free television time -- has resulted, critics say, in lenient regulatory treatment by the county, despite persistent complaints of rude employees, missed service appointments and lengthy waits for representatives to answer the phones.
"I think Comcast has been given kid-glove treatment," council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) said.
Like other big companies doing business in Maryland, Comcast and its leaders contribute money to Montgomery County candidates -- about $4,000 over the past two years. It also sponsors receptions for elected officials, including gatherings at the national political conventions this summer. In the weeks before the November 2002 election, it donated $52,000 to the Maryland Republican Party and $75,000 to the Democratic Party, according to campaign finance reports.
Comcast's largesse isn't limited to elected officials. Jane Lawton, head of Montgomery's Office of Cable Television, which can fine the company for poor service, received contributions from several Comcast executives when she took a leave of absence to make a run for the House of Delegates in 2002, which ended unsuccessfully.
"I feel like we are really tough regulators," Lawton said, pointing to the new service standards for Internet access, among the first of their kind in the nation.
Other officials are growing uncomfortable with some company perks, such as tickets to University of Maryland basketball games at the Comcast Center. "It doesn't pass the smell test," council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) said of the free seats offered to the council. "I think it creates a real perception problem."
Comcast officials said that lobbying county officials is a sound and ethical policy, noting that cable companies have been criticized in the past for being inaccessible to decision-makers.
"We do this for the purpose of information-gathering and for the purpose of gaining feedback," said spokesman David H. Nevins, not for "exercising any inappropriate influence."
Several other council members agree.
"Their lobbying is no different than any business in Montgomery County, like Lockheed Martin or Marriott," said council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large).
It is difficult to assess the full extent of Comcast's lobbying in the county. Unlike representatives of other companies, Comcast lobbyists are exempt from a requirement to register with the Montgomery County Ethics Commission. Registered lobbyists must file reports detailing their salaries, how much they spent entertaining county officials and what, if any, gifts they gave them.
Silverman said the exemption was "an oversight" that occurred when the county first negotiated a franchise agreement with the company in 2000. Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), chairman of the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee, said she will try to have the ethics loophole closed.
But she and several other council members say the larger issue is Comcast's aggressiveness when it feels threatened.
In summer 2003, when George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) was supporting a movement by about 300 Comcast employees to join the Communications Workers of America, he was summoned to a meeting with company officials, who warned him to stay out of their internal affairs.
"I saw an entirely different side of the company," Leventhal said. "Suddenly, people got angry with me, and I got accused of being a pawn of union goons."
In August, Comcast sent broad subpoenas to Perez and Leventhal seeking documents related to their support of the union movement. It was defending a suit before the National Labor Relations Board by Stephen G. White, a line technician who claimed that he was fired for helping to organize the effort.
Comcast agreed to rehire White a few days after the subpoenas were issued.
Although some council members say that Comcast is no different from other companies doing business in the county, it does offer something other firms can't: free television time.
Comcast produces three-minute interviews on county issues with elected officials and community leaders, which air after certain programs, such as those on CNN Headline News.
"It's a marriage made in heaven in terms of Comcast and the council being able to help each other out," said Drew Powell, co-chairman of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, a grass-roots civic organization.
Around Christmas, Comcast invites council members and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) to tape personalized holiday greetings, which are broadcast during commercial breaks.
"The value of that is enormous," Leventhal said. "If I had to buy campaign airtime, that's huge."
Still, Leventhal said he isn't sure he will accept such an offer in the future because he now feels it is "somewhat compromising" and gives incumbents an unfair advantage.
Other council members defend the practice as a rare opportunity to reach large numbers of constituents in an expensive media market. "I don't know if that is a bad thing," said Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who along with Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) has also taped greetings.
Nevins said the interviews are legitimate news programs because elected officials do not write the questions, although they often get to choose the subject. As for the holiday messages, Nevins said they are public service announcements, not simply holiday greetings, and do not amount to gifts or perks.
But Nevins added that the company considers free airtime as a donation when it is given to charities and other organizations.
Comcast, which gives hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to nonprofit and charitable organizations in the county, provides other opportunities for elected officials to get exposure, offering them leading roles at such company-sponsored events as the Summer Film Festival and Comcast Toon Days.
National consumer and labor groups say that Comcast uses a similar approach in dealing with other local and state governments.
"There is a mismatch between the force the cable operation can bring on one side and what resources the local franchising authority have," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. "It is very difficult to resist when they bring this immense pressure to bear."
Silverman said the council is not cowed by Comcast's power. "I am not aware of any of my colleagues who are persuaded to vote Comcast's way so they can introduce 'Shrek' at the Summer Film Festival," Silverman said.
Praisner and Andrews said Comcast's relationship with Duncan and other county leaders has resulted in lenient treatment. "They are slow in responding to information requests from the county. They are slow in responding to information from the consumers. They push the envelope," Praisner said.
About 1,300 complaints against Comcast were filed last year with Montgomery County's Office of Cable Television. They involved missed appointments, rude employees, long periods on hold waiting for operators and lengthy periods of Internet downtime. Fines can be levied if service standards or other parts of the franchise agreement are not met.
In all, the county has levied $35,000 in fines -- including a $17,000 fine the company inherited when it took over the Montgomery cable franchise in 2000. The county has also ordered a $725,000 refund to consumers, including a half-million dollars because of prolonged outages during Hurricane Isabel in September 2003.
But county officials said that Comcast's performance appears to be improving. In the first quarter of this year, there was a 37 percent drop in complaints to the cable office, compared with the same period last year.
One key contact for Comcast in county government is Jerry Pasternak, Duncan's chief political aide, whose responsibilities include cable television policy.
According to phone logs and Pasternak's schedule, both obtained through the state's Public Information Act, he is in frequent contact with Ellen Bogage, Comcast's Montgomery County lobbyist. The two exchanged at least 50 phone calls between January and July, when the cable modem rules were being considered.
Pasternak said that he and Bogage discussed other issues during the calls but acknowledged that Comcast "was fairly aggressive" in its opposition to the new standards. The company argued that regulations were unnecessary and discriminatory because they did not cover DSL, the other type of high-speed Internet service.
"There were a lot of calls, some letters, asking for changes," Pasternak said. "But I think at the end of the day, we did not make a lot of the changes they requested."
Staff writer Amit R. Paley and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.