As Comcast Corp. was seeking political support in Washington for its proposed merger with NBC Universal Inc. in early May, a letter of support was circulated among Pennsylvania lawmakers and later signed by most of the state's congressional delegation.
The May 13 pro-Comcast letter was authored by David Urban, a former chief of staff for Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and now a lobbyist for Comcast, and signed by 15 of 18 Pennsylvania representatives.
Submitted into the public record at the Federal Communications Commission by Rep. Robert Brady (D., Phila.), the letter seems a raw display of Comcast's political clout in Pennsylvania, where the cable giant has its corporate headquarters, employs 11,000 workers, and contributes to political campaigns.
The pro-Comcast letter was timely, arriving as a coalition of 68 lawmakers from other states, led by Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Calif.), began calling for more public hearings on the proposed merger last month.
Other Comcast opponents also were active. The Communications Workers of America, a coalition of rural telecom firms, and Bloomberg L.P. have hired the powerful Patton Boggs L.L.P. firm in Washington to represent them in the regulatory review process.
Kevin Martin, a persistent critic of Comcast during his tenure as chairman of the FCC during the George W. Bush administration, joined the Patton Boggs firm in 2009, although Martin's name hasn't showed up on lobbying disclosure forms.
The letter signed by the Pennsylvania representatives praises Comcast for its growth from "a small cable system operator" to "one of the nation's leading communications and entertainment companies" and credits its "hands-on involvement in the local communities that it serves." It also says that Comcast and NBC Universal have made "numerous, unprecedented up front commitments to meet the needs of viewers and protect the interests of competitors."
It offers points of view that will be considered along with many others in what is expected to be a heated and contentious process.
Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with the Consumers' Union, said the lobbyist-written letter was "more the rule than the exception" in Washington and a troubling trend. The involvement by lobbyists focuses lawmakers on short-term politics rather than long-term policy decisions, he said.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have backed the Comcast/NBCU merger for understandable reasons: The potential for more jobs and the prestige of a large media company being headquartered in the state.
Critics say Comcast could become too powerful by controlling both a major entertainment producer and the nation's largest cable-TV network, with 24 million cable-TV subscribers.
Brady's office defended the letter and the manner in which it was crafted.
"It wasn't like a corporate titan was sitting around pulling our strings," Stanley White, Brady's chief of staff, said Tuesday. "It's not that we did their bidding. We decided we would support them. Wouldn't it be congressional malpractice to not help a major employer and taxpayer?"
Brady asked Comcast how he could help after the proposed $30 billion merger was announced in December. Brady's office then asked Comcast for help in preparing the letter so it would make the proper points to the FCC, White said. "No one on our staff is an expert in the verbiage they use at that agency," White said, referring to the FCC.
The Microsoft Word document containing the draft of the letter circulated among Pennsylvania lawmakers in early May listed lobbyist Urban as the author. This early version and the one on file in the FCC are the same, except for the lawmakers' signatures.
White said he did not know whether Urban wrote the letter or someone else in his firm did, describing the letter as collaborative between Brady's office and Comcast.
Urban did not return phone calls the last two days. A lobbying disclosure form states that American Continental Group, which employs Urban, earned $40,000 from Comcast in 2009 for lobbying on the NBCU merger, telecom and Internet issues, and the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize workers.
As it sought signatures for the letter, Brady's office did not inform Pennsylvania lawmakers that the letter had been drafted by a Comcast lobbyist, White said.
"If the language is acceptable, there is no reason to tell other offices how we collaborated on the letter," he said.
Most Pennsylvania representatives signed the letter, but three did not - Reps. Mike Doyle, Paul Kanjorski, and Joseph Sestak.
A spokesman for Rep. Jim Gerlach, a Republican who represents parts of Chester, Montgomery, and Berks Counties, said Tuesday that Gerlach has a personal policy of not signing letters written by lobbyists. "He's not backing away from the content of the letter, but if he knew it was drafted by a Comcast lobbyist, he would have authored his own letter," said the spokesman, Kori Walter.
Kanjorski, a Democrat from Wilkes-Barre, sent a letter to the FCC requesting the review be done in "a timely manner."
Sestak, a Democrat from Delaware County, has not filed a letter. He said in a statement Friday: "The merger of Comcast and NBC Universal would create one of the largest media companies in the world, and could be a tremendous economic opportunity for Pennsylvania. However, many of my constituents are concerned about the possibility of higher costs or lost jobs.
"The FCC estimates that cable costs have increased at triple the rate of inflation over the past 15 years. Some contend that this is due to industry consolidation, and that the potential combined debt of NBC and Comcast may lead to lost jobs in Pennsylvania."
Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said Tuesday, "We are seeking support not only in Pennsylvania but across the country. Obviously our headquarters is in Pennsylvania, and we think this transaction is good for the company, Philadelphia, and the state."
Comcast is facing well-funded opposition to its $30-billion deal to acquire NBCU.
The Communications Workers, Bloomberg, and the coalition of rural telecom companies have paid Patton Boggs $110,000 to lobby this year on merger issues.
The biggest amount - $70,000 - was paid by Bloomberg, which owns a financial wire and cable-TV channel that compete with CNBC. Comcast would own CNBC, the leading financial news channel, if the deal is approved.
"Unless consumer safeguards are built into any approval, we oppose the merger of the nation's largest cable operator and the nation's oldest broadcast network, as it represents a monopoly that will disadvantage consumers," Bloomberg spokeswoman Pam Snook said in a statement.
Waters, a high-profile congresswoman from Los Angeles and a skeptic of the Comcast/NBCU merger, said in an interview with The Inquirer last week that she had heard the Pennsylvania delegation's letter had been from Comcast. She said she viewed the letters of support from Pennsylvania lawmakers as "hometown representatives . . . coming to the aid of a large corporate interest with influence in the state."