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Comcast executives appear to share cozy relationships with regulators (muckrock.com)
165 points by morisy on July 1, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments

As much as I hate Comcast and occasionally say prayers that a cement truck accidentally crashes into Tom Wheeler's house, and I'd love to see a massive scandal here - these emails don't seem incriminating at all.

A high level official got invited to a party, and declined because "the rules folks over here tell me I can't". They know each other (makes sense, they're both working at a high level in the same industry) and they have people watching their backs to make sure they don't do anything that can legally be considered corrupt (again, makes sense, shit's a minefield and an ill-defined one at that. If I were in that position I would have people keeping an eye on that whether I was corrupt or pious as a lamb)

Am I missing something? I clicked on that link salivating for the political blood of Comcast executives and all I got was a polite grownup email version of "sry bro can't come, rules n shyt, sounds bumpin tho"

You're missing that this person is trying to satisfy the letter of the law, instead of the intent.

Basically, if your reaction to such an invitation is to ask legal "how can I go to this rad absolutely not work related party without giving the impression of impropriety?" instead of telling the other person "this is unacceptable and you know it".. you're not out for the publics best interest.

I work in a regulatory environment (much lower level) and have turned down stuff (cheap stuff, like a reception where I might get comped a drink).

Out of sheer politeness, I sometimes respond with a "those stuffed shirts say I can't". It's a handy non-confrontational excuse that can't really be argued against, and doesn't make you sound like a prig.

Did you then continue to casually extend a dinner invitation? I get it, people don't want to seem like cold assholes. But I think we should be very wary of a regulatory environment where high-level executives give heartfelt apologies intermixed with personal stories and backup plans instead of clearly rejecting such obviously inappropiate offers.

If you're a decent regulator, it's your job to be a cold. That's basically the whole point. You don't need to be an asshole, but you should damn well insist on deference and distance.

By way of analogy, can you imagine a judge dispensing with formalities and telling the people facing him in court "Relax! Call me Jim." Obviously not. Because when it comes to the law, conspicuously arms-lengths relationships are essential.

Honestly, a few of those folks were in grad school with me far before they were on the "other side" (actually this is true of "both" other sides). We thrash each other in meetings and can perfectly drop work over dinner.

That's the problem, it's a small world, and blurry lines, when you get to highly technical corners of it.

Agreed. Being a stone-cold robot is counterproductive in high-level communications.

The problematic part is being robotic. Being stone-cold is another matter entirely.

The problem with trying to satisfy the intent of the law is that you may run afoul of the letter of the law. And since high-powered corporate and government officials don't often get a pass for obeying the intent of the law if they break the letter of the law, they're essentially forced to worry primarily about the letter.

As an individual you have no obligation to even attempt to satisfy the intent of a law (and it's foolish to do so), both for the reason you state and for a more basic reason. Laws don't have intent. People have intent. For a bill to become law 539 people have to sign on to it, and they all have different understandings and agendas.

What you have quoted above is a proper response for someone without any business experience.

Otherwise politely turning down an offer by quoting the layers vs trying to accuse a potential business lead of impropriety is how it happens in the real world.

Um, we're talking about regulators (i.e. law enforcement) and the people they regulate. If the former sees the latter as "a potential business lead" thing have already gotten way, way off track.

Maybe Comcast is in the running for new council? That doesn't seem way off track to me.

That's EXACTLY the problem. If there's one set of people on planet Earth who Comcast should absolutely, positively NEVER be allowed to hire it's the people who are currently overseeing them.

Frankly, it should go without saying that anyone making this jump has been bribed. Accepting a job from a former subject of regulation should result in jail time for both the hire, and the people responsible for hiring them.

Consider Meredith Attwell Baker, the former FCC commissioner who approved the NBC / Comcast a few months before taking a high-level (and insanely well paid) job as a lobbyist for the combined company she (legally) helped create.

Again, she should be in jail for that, and so should the people with the nerve to hire her. Instead, they're all making millions while trust in our government is rightfully hitting rock bottom.

I strongly dislike language as crass and degrading as "corporate whore". At the same time, I struggle to find a more apt description of what happened here. It's indefensibly despicable and anyone who says otherwise is simply flagging themselves as a part of the problem.


TIL Comcast isn't in it for the public interest.

I'm not missing that at all. The fact that we expect corporations to further their own interests over those of the public (and that people who are cunning enough to get into powerful government positions often come from industry) is exactly why the law is lettered that way in the first place.

If you think you get to a position anywhere close to where these guys are by being a jeopardizing valuable relationships in the name of doing-things-in-the-spirit-of-selfless-public-service, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'm looking to sell. Good price, too, shoot me a PM.

What's the point of a comment like this? It just undermines the value/integrity of your earlier one.

You're also missing that the executives personal interest dont per-se align with those of their parent. So its quite possible for an individual to undermine both the public and his employer with a single go.

Various rogue executives illustrate this point without much recourse to google. But say nick leeson at baring kind of jumps out, and then the scale of what was seen in the past 5-7 years makes that look like childs play.

You might also find this "of intellectual interest"


...Or, not.

But the issues are far deeper--extending for many years and at many levels--more than just a single example taken out of context.


Edit: item?id={7538921}

WRT Executives interests not necessarily aligning with their parent - absolutely true. And yeah, I probably should have been less abrasive.

Can you double-check your link? I tried following it but it just links to this thread.

So what if Comcast's CEO Katryn Zachem really believes the merger is not just in hers, but also in the public's interest and tries to skirt the letter of the law in order to make things better for everybody?

Well, the obvious answer being that she's a fool and needs to actually listen to people other than the people in her current network.

Besides that though, what if she really is?

I don't think the intent of the law is to prohibit all personal relationships between people in those roles. I think the CEO could reasonably believe that attending the party is fine under the intent of the law, but is concerned whether it violates the letter of the law.

Oh man - why can't he have used your phrasing. Would have been viral in an instant :-)

The CEO of Comcast plays golf with the President. How much cozier can you get exactly?


Believe it or not, regulators actually maintain some independence from the Executive. Were that not that case, this would be more of a scandal, as opposed to the standard sleaze that has become (ahem) par for the course in DC.

A certain level of corruption is perhaps expected in any large bureaucracy. People are, after all, only human.

What really galls me, however, is the circumstances. This isn't some low-level flunky taking a bribe under the table to move things along. This is a ranking official tasked specifically with overseeing the Comcast merger work, who should have known that they'd be subjected to extra scrutiny.

Also, interestingly, the FOIA response appears not to have redacted the e-mail addresses of a number of very high-ranking public officials in the FTC and FCC.

I have to agree with Alex here - I see no evidence of wrong doing and no evidence of making sure there is no evidence.

I mean she asked, she said no. Regulators are there primarily to prevent abuse, not to replace either vicious competition or political oversight. So it's going to be cozy.

I agree that there's no actual wrongdoing present, looking only at the content of the e-mails.

However, the tone of the e-mail suggests that this is one event in a pattern, and that the size and unusual nature of the particular gift (how many times are you going to get to go to the Olympics?) is what prompted a discussion with "the rules folks".

Wouldn't you expect a good regulator with a "cozy" relationship to already know what's in and out of bounds? That seems like it would be part of their job, without needing to consult the rules people.

But perhaps I'm being too uncharitable, and both sides should get the benefit of the doubt. I'm willing to concede I might be reading in between the lines too much.

Regulators and industry have always had somewhat of an incestuous relationship. Often the experts in fields like telecom have to come from industry and often times they have an eye on their future career. The FCC, FAA, FDA, Defense, all are plagued with this problem. Unless we are willing to pay comparable to industry, the regulators will be a revolving door.

It's not just money. Modern regulatory agencies are highly technical. People outside the industry simply lack the necessary experience to be effective. The intersection of people who have the relevant technical experience, who don't come from industry, and who want to work at the FCC or FDA is very small. Usually when regulatory positions aren't filled with industry people, they're filled with career bureaucrats. Would you want an agency full of career bureaucrats to oversee say the software industry?

> Regulators and industry have always had somewhat of an incestuous relationship. Often the experts in fields like telecom have to come from industry and often times they have an eye on their future career.

It's kind of hard to see how it could work any other way. Suppose, for example, we want someone to head the FAA. It seems obvious you want someone with a vast knowledge of the aviation industry.

Are there really many people who have that vast knowledge and are NOT working in the aviation industry? We're basically supposed to look for someone whose career has nothing to do with aviation, but has somehow, perhaps as a hobby, become one of the country's top aviation industry experts?

Yes, it is kind of a conundrum in a way, in a lot of ways you really need the real world experience of the industry people but that implies a little bit of a conflict of interest. I guess if there was a way to have someone have a career as a regulator, but again, perhaps that limits their experience and knowledge....

I wonder what would the meeting be like if there was no anti-corruption rules and this was allowed.

Cozy? Hardly, do you know how much that relationship cost comcast?


And in other breaking news, the sky is blue, things fall down, and water is wet. Please stay tuned for further developments as these exciting stories continue to unfold.

Yes, solid evidence of inferred corruption is such old and boring news, hardly worthy of our time and attention.

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