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NJ Daily / ISSUE OF THE WEEK

Key Tech Players Aid Obama Transition Behind The Scenes

December 1, 2008

When President-elect Obama's transition team recently named two respected academics with strong ties to a prominent advocacy group to review changes at the FCC, the announcement appeared designed to signal that the public-interest sector would play a larger role in shaping high-tech policy than under the Bush administration.

Susan Crawford and Kevin Werbach are professors at the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, respectively, who have held mid-level posts at the FCC. Both sit on the advisory board of Public Knowledge, best known for advocating unfettered access to Internet content and less restrictive copyright laws.

"We're not going to be a government that's run by corporate lobbyists -- that's the message," said Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of the group.

 

But with a heavy roster of former top FCC officials and powerful communications executives working on the transition, some are skeptical that academics will choose the next agency chairman. "I find it hard to believe that they would be the persons making the selections," said one telecom industry source, who expects higher level advisers to call the shots.

Meanwhile, corporations such as AT&T and Verizon, which wielded considerable sway during the heady years of the Bush presidency, are finding ways to influence the new administration despite predictions they'll have less pull with it. Those efforts include informal contacts that assure these companies a voice in the planning while largely keeping them out of the spotlight.

One Transition, Many Voices

Bolstering the theory that Crawford and Werbach are the public face of the FCC review, the office of the President-elect confirmed that they report to Tom Wheeler, an early supporter of Obama, major fundraiser for his campaign and longtime lobbyist.

Wheeler, on leave as managing director at the venture capital firm Core Capital Partners, has a long resume that includes stints as head of the main cable and wireless industry associations.

The academics were selected after an effort to tap Henry Rivera, an attorney at Wiley Rein, backfired over criticism that his law firm has represented many of the dominant cable and telecom corporations the new administration wants to rein in. Wiley Rein also is closely associated with Kevin Martin, the FCC's current Republican chairman who previously worked there.

Obama's advisers, meanwhile, have maintained regular contact with a wide array of tech industry players to gather feedback useful in shaping policy.

"Just as we did during the campaign, the Obama transition team is committed to bringing together all parties to share ideas, thoughts and advice during the transition process," spokeswoman Amy Brundage acknowledged in an e-mail to CongressDaily.

"The agency review process is an inclusive process, and we have welcomed input from everyday Americans, lawmakers [and] business leaders, and we are in communication with all affected parties during the transition," she added.

That input will include so-called "transition letters" to be submitted by stakeholders this month outlining their policy concerns, a telecom industry source disclosed.

Personal Connections

The high-tech industry had an early foothold in the Obama campaign through regular conference calls about policy matters, according to another insider familiar with the discussions.

Meanwhile, Julius Genachowski, a former Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's who was a senior executive at Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, is viewed as a key liaison to industry representatives. Genachowski also served as FCC chief counsel when Reed Hundt, another key Obama backer, was commission chairman.

Such relationships are a highly sensitive topic, as evidenced by the reluctance of individuals with close ties to the new administration to respond to press inquiries -- or when reached, to insist they have played minor roles.

These sorts of contacts, which require no public disclosure, drew a cautious defense from Craig Holman, legislative representative for the Public Citizen watchdog group, a registered lobbyist who is providing informal input to the transition along with other watchdogs.

"The objective is to make sure that paid lobbyists are not sitting in a position where they actually are in decision-making authority or can wield undue influence through campaign money," Holman explained.

"It's not to prohibit consulting with lobbyists," he said, noting that some are specialists in their fields and have useful information to offer.

AT&T and Verizon, whose tentacles reached deep within the Bush administration and its GOP-controlled FCC, are relying on two influential and well-connected executives with strong Democratic Party bona fides to strengthen rapport with the Obama campaign.

Kathryn Brown, Verizon's senior vice president for public policy development and corporate responsibility, served as chief of staff to former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard, a telecom and tech adviser to the campaign. She initially backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., but later threw her allegiance behind Obama.

Dorothy Attwood, senior vice president of regulatory planning and policy at AT&T, was senior legal adviser to Kennard. Brown declined to comment and Attwood didn't return calls.

Tech Well-Represented

The Obama transition team reads like a who's who of the tech world, creating a deep bench of policy gurus to influence the FCC vetting process and, perhaps, fill Democratic vacancies on the five-member commission.

Overseeing a technology, innovation and government reform work group are Blair Levin, managing director of the investment firm Stifel Nicolaus and Hundt's former chief of staff at the FCC; Sonal Shah, head of Google's global development efforts; and Genachowski. Levin and Genachowski are candidates to run the FCC, though most sources think Genachowski is a more likely choice for the nation's first chief technology officer.

Dale Hatfield, an independent consultant and telecom professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also is aiding the FCC review. He garnered headlines last year after lawmakers accused the agency of suppressing a report it hired him to write because FCC brass disagreed with his conclusions.

Don Gips, group vice president of global corporate development at Level 3 Communications Inc. and another candidate to run the FCC, is co-chairing a team assessing personnel selections for several agencies.

Hundt, a part-time senior adviser to McKinsey & Co., a strategic consulting firm, who sits on the boards of Allegiance Telecom, Expedia, Intel Corp. and Public Knowledge, is part of a broad agency review team while assisting with international trade and economic matters.

Working alongside Hundt on trade issues is Susan Ness, who backed Clinton's candidacy and served as an FCC regulator during Bill Clinton's administration, and Phil Weiser, a law professor and colleague of Hatfield at the University of Colorado. Both Weiser and Ness could be tapped for FCC positions.

Anna Gomez, vice president of government affairs at Sprint Nextel who replaced Attwood as senior legal adviser to Kennard, is leading the review of the office of the U.S. trade representative, while Jim Kohlenberger, who runs a coalition representing Internet-based telecom carriers that includes Intel and Microsoft as members, is focused on science and tech policy.

Questions already have been raised about whether some transition officials are crossing ethics boundaries set by Obama soon after his election. CongressDaily reported last month that James Halpert, a technology and telecom lobbyist, has been doing transition work on patent, trademark and intellectual property issues in possible violation of the guidelines, while recent news reports indicate similar concerns about other lobbyists and individuals assisting with defense and other policy areas who might have conflicts of interest.

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