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Comcast and Time Warner fund event for FCC regulator while seeking merger approval

eye-opener-logo6Comcast and Time Warner Cable are spending more than $130,000 on a dinner to honor one of the federal regulators who will rule on their controversial merger plan, according to records of the companies’ contributions.

The fundraising event for the Walter Kaitz Foundation will honor Federal Communications Commission panel member Mignon Clyburn as an advocate for diversity.

Comcast is listed as one of the dinner’s presenting sponsors, which requires a $110,000 donation. Time Warner, meanwhile, paid $22,000 to be a benefactor for the event, according to a lobbying disclosure report.

The FCC would have to approve the $45 billion Comcast-Time Warner merger for the deal to go through, but competing interest groups and some lawmakers have expressed concerns about the proposal during hearings this year.

Jordan Morrisey, who wrote an article about the topic as a researcher for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said honoring lawmakers and regulators is “one of the more under the radar moves in Comcast’s merger playbook — a playbook that also emphasizes lobbying, campaign contributions and winning support from third-party groups, especially those representing minorities.”

Clyburn’s office said the commissioner “sought and obtained the requisite ethics approval” before accepting the foundation’s invitation. “Given the mission of the Kaitz Foundation, it makes sense to honor a champion of diversity and inclusion, the first African American woman on the commission and the only woman in the commision’s 80-year history to serve as its chair,” her office said in a statement.

Comcast and Time Warner noted that they have supported the foundation for decades, giving at the “highest level for several years.”

“We are the industry leader — in our size and our commitment to diversity — and it is important that we reflect that in our financial support of the Kaitz Foundation,” said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice.

Comcast said it spent at least $120,000 annually to back the foundation’s fundraising dinner since 2011, when it took over NBC Universal. Since 2004, the two corporations have contributed more than $1 million combined to the event, according to the numbers she provided.

“We absolutely dispute the notion that our contributions have anything to do with currying favor with Commissioner Clayburn or any honoree,” Fitzmaurice said. “Such claims are insulting and not supported by any evidence.”

Time Warner’s support for the foundation has been strong as well. Spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said the company contributing between $40,000 and $55,000 annually to the group since 2011.

“After 30 years of supporting the Walter Kaitz Foundation and their work to advance the contributions of women and multi-ethnic professionals in cable, we’re pleased to continue our support this year as we do every year at the annual Kaitz Dinner,” Amirshahi said.

Despite those longstanding contributions, CREW spokesman Derrick Crowe said the funding this year seems inappropriate. “Donating to a nonprofit and donating to a nonprofit specifically to honor an FCC commissioner who’s about to rule on your upcoming merger are different things,” he said. “Clearly, these companies want to influence the commissioner.”

Comcast is known for its highly sophisticated lobbying efforts. David Cohen, the cable giant’s chief lobbyist, told The Washington Post in a 2012 interview that the company postponed the launch of a new Internet service for the poor to use the plan as a bargaining chip in its takeover of NBC Universal, which had to be approved by the FCC.

“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman [of the FCC],” Cohen said.

More recently, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce announced its support for the Comcast-Time Warner merger just hours after the proposal was announced. The minority group collected at least $320,000 over the last five years from Comcast’s charitable foundation, according to a New York Times report.

Cohen has rejected the notion that Comcast is supporting minority groups to buy support for its transactions. “I believe it is offensive to the organizations we support,” he told the Times.

Critics of the Comcast-Time Warner merger argue that the proposal would create a single company with too much power. Netflix, which offers online video streaming, said in its first-quarter letter to shareholders that the merged companies would control as much as half of all broadband Internet subscriptions, with most of the homes having no alternatives for such service, according to a Washington Post article.

Comcast responded by saying it has a stronger commitment to openness of the Internet than any other provider. The company contends that it would only control 35 percent of the broadband market after the merger and that more than 90 percent of its customers would have the choice between two or more providers.