The day after Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) called for an FBI investigation into whether News of the World reporters had hacked the cellphones of 9/11 victims, his phone rang. Rupert Murdoch was on the line.
“He said, ‘Let me know if there is any information you need,’ ” said King, recounting the brief conversation. “ ‘I just want you to know that nothing inappropriate happened in the United States.’ ”
The tension between Murdoch and the British government — on full display during Tuesday’s parliamentary grilling — has made it more important than ever for the media mogul to maintain good relations with Congress.
And for lawmakers who don’t receive a personal message from Murdoch, there is Michael Regan, a mild-mannered former Capitol Hill staffer who heads News Corp.’s lobbying arm and oversees the company’s political donations. According to a senior official at News Corp., “99 percent” of News Corp.’s government relations in Washington fall to Regan and his North Capitol Street lobbyists, who constitute one of the most muscular teams in town.
These days, politicians are more interested in discussing the News of the World phone-hacking scandal than technical issues such as intellectual property, retransmission consent and the piracy of Hollywood films.
Regan and his in-house operation are long accustomed to the challenges of representing Murdoch, one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in American politics. But now Regan also has to find a way to cast the tarnished company in a more noble light.
“Journalism is under threat right now,” said the senior News Corp. official, who agreed to share the lobbying team’s media strategy on the condition of anonymity. The News Corp. spin stresses that the now-shuttered News of the World is only a “small division of the company” and that the suspected illegal activity there was an aberration. “The worst-case scenario is that this gets extended to all reporters,” said the official. “It could be a witch hunt.”
Edward Fritts, former head of the National Association of Broadcasters and now an outside lobbyist for News Corp. who reports to Regan, concurs. “There is a huge difference between journalism in the U.S. and journalism in Great Britain,” he said. “This is pretty much a U.K. issue and not something that has been condoned or promulgated here.”
Regan, who answers directly to Murdoch and News Corp. Deputy Chairman Chase Carey, is responsible for shaping and implementing that message — making sure nothing impedes the agenda of a company that has stakes in broadcasting, print media, cable TV, movies and other industries regulated by Congress.
Regan, a balding and professorial 52-year-old whom former congressional colleagues credit with guiding the landmark 1996 telecommunications act through the House — not to mention other legislation favored by Republicans and News Corp. — is described by current and former colleagues as an unassuming, spotlight-shunning operator who has a high degree of credibility with just about everyone on the Hill. (Regan declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“We can always count on Mike and his colleagues as among the most effective and innovative advocates,” former senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), now chief executive and chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in an e-mail.
Company officials said Regan has a warm relationship with Murdoch. News Corp. officials said that Murdoch relies on his lobbyist for inside information about the Washington political scene. Fritts said that Regan, who often accompanies Murdoch to meetings around town, “is in charge of the political contributions” doled out by News Corp. (In August, News Corp. gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Last month, News Corp.’s political action committee increased its donations to both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.)
Regan, in short, is Murdoch’s man in Washington, a city the lobbyist knows well.
Regan, who was born in Bethesda and who attended St. Albans School in Northwest Washington, lives in the Washington area with his wife, Carol Ann Bischoff, and two children. Bischoff is a fellow University of Virginia law school alum who worked as telecommunications counsel for then-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) until 1996.
Regan graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1981 and received his law degree from the University of Virginia. Regan took a job with the Denver-based law firm Tucker & Vaught before returning to Washington in 1986 as an aide to then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and later as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Democratic takeover of the Senate in 1987 led him to private practice, where he gained expertise on telecommunications issues at the D.C. law firm Verner, Liipfert.
Regan parlayed that technical know-how into a senior counsel position with the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 1991, the beginning of an especially productive period for a committee with a generally bipartisan reputation.
It was a time that prepared him for his current gig, as he came into contact with legislation governing the expansion of media empires, Murdoch’s place in the market and even cellphone hacking.
In October 1992, Congress passed a bill regulating how much cable charges could be increased. Murdoch was involved in the process, walking the halls of the Capitol and meeting with legislators. News Corp. was especially interested in a debate over whether cable companies should be forced to carry certain broadcasters, a measure known as “must-carry.”
People involved in the debate at the time said that one of Regan’s predecessors, worried that the requirement was unconstitutional and endangered the legislation, threatened the committee negotiations by announcing that “must-carry is for losers.”
The next year, the committee worked on a bill to open up and auction off broadcast frequency to more cellphone providers. The measure was folded into a budget by President Bill Clinton that Republicans made clear they would not support, but Regan worked hard with Democrats to shape the policy.
“He was not in any way an ideologue,” said Gerard Waldron, Regan’s Democratic counterpart at the time, now a lawyer with Covington & Burling. “Mike did not overplay his hand. You can only push for so much when your members aren’t going to vote for it.”
Regan also gained expertise on phone hacking during this period. In 1994, FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno urged committee members to let them pass the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, legislation that would force cellphone carriers to update their systems in a way that made them accessible to government wiretaps.
But Regan’s greatest accomplishment came with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
“He played a major role with a major piece of legislation,” said former representative Jack Fields (R-Tex.), chairman at the time of the House Commerce Committee’s telecommunications subcommittee, adding that it was only natural that Regan eventually went to work in the field he helped create the rules for. “Almost every person who leaves the telecommunications subcommittee ends up, because of their expertise, in a major law firm or major association or something. It’s kind of like going to graduate school.”
After the bill’s passage, Regan cashed in, taking a job with the cellphone company NextWave Telecom.
Murdoch personally interviewed Regan for the job of overseeing his company’s legislative and regulatory activities in March 2001. After his appointment, Regan told The Post that his portfolio would be “very broad.” News Corp. appointed Regan its chief lobbyist in October 2004, with the title “executive vice president of government affairs,” reporting to the company’s then-president, Peter Chernin, who left the company in 2009 and was succeeded by Murdoch’s son James.
Regan “is a smart and thoughtful leader whose commitment along with his versatility have allowed him to form deep and powerful relationships that make him adept at tackling challenging situations within the Beltway and beyond,” Chernin, who has declined to comment about the phone-hacking scandal, said in an e-mail.
In January, News Corp. bulked up Regan’s Washington office by adding lobbyists with links to the National Association of Broadcasters to work with News Corp. veterans such as Maureen O’Connell, a former legal adviser to Federal Communications Commission chief James H. Quello. Together they have handled a broad swath of News Corp. business.
Fields, Regan’s former boss in the House, said Murdoch was lucky to have him.
“People know him, know that he has credibility and integrity, and that he’s not involved in day-to-day operations,” Fields says. “And I’m sure a lot of people are sympathetic that he has to respond to a lot of this. It’s just totally foreign to anything we’ve ever seen before.”