Conflicts of interest have been front and center in federal politics this election cycle, but there is another place where we see a grey cloud of impropriety: the Virginia General Assembly. More specifically, above the head of Republican Delegate Kathy Byron, who last week introduced HB 2108, the “Broadband Deployment Act.”
We noticed Byron is inclined to accept sizable campaign donations from big cable and DSL corporate friends, but Phil Dampier’s excellent article on Stop the Cap! took a deeper look at her dubious connections. Tracing campaign dollars from state legislators who sponsor these bills back to companies like Verizon ($36,100 for Byron), Comcast ($3,000), AT&T ($9,250), and CenturyLink ($3,500) is no surprise. Finding similar connections to their state lobbying groups such as the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association is also typical (a generous $15,000). For people like Dampier and us, it's kind of par for the course.
Campaign contributions call into question a legislators motivations but Byron has other connections that her constituents, colleagues in the General Assembly, and other Virginians need to examine as they consider HB 2108 and her role as a policy maker in state government:
From Stop the Cap!:
Since 2008, Stop the Cap! has reviewed industry-sponsored municipal broadband ban bills, and none to date have illustrated the level of conflict of interest we see here. We call on Virginian officials to carefully investigate the ties Ms. Byron has to cable and phone companies and the ethical concerns raised from her involvement in key state bodies that can make or break rural broadband in Virginia. Byron increasingly exposes an agenda favoring incumbent phone and cable companies that just happen to contribute to her campaign — companies she seems willing to protect at any cost.
The section of her bill detailing requirements for community providers seeking to expand requires them to ask permission from an entity known as the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, which Byron disturbingly chairs. If the goal of this Council is to pave the road to improved broadband, Byron’s bill is an enormous pothole. Restricting competition won’t help the Council’s goal of winning lower prices for consumers and businesses either, and last time we checked, broadband bills in Virginia are going up, not down.
The Broadband Advisory Council And Its Members
We looked into the legislative requirement for membership on the state’s Broadband Advisory Council.
According to the enabling legislation, the purpose of the Council is to “advise the Governor on policy and funding priorities to expedite deployment and reduce the cost of broadband access in the Commonwealth.” As an advisory board, the Council is not engaged in a regulatory or rule making, but it can help develop public policy by providing comment and advice.
Because the true nature of a council or board depends on the members, we looked into the legislative requirement for membership on the state’s Broadband Advisory Council. This is where things began to get troublesome.
State law dictates that the Council be comprised of six legislative members, four citizen members, and four ex officio members. Legislative members are appointed by the Speaker of the House (four members) and Senate Committee on Rules appoints two Senators. Ex officio members are always the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Commerce and Trade, and Technology, or their designees, and the executive director of the Center for Rural Virginia. The Governor appoints citizen members to the Council.
According to the enabling legislation:
[F]our nonlegislative citizen members to be appointed by the Governor, of whom one shall be a representative of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, one shall be a representative of the Virginia Telecommunications Industry Association, one shall be a representative from local government recommended by the Virginia Municipal League and Virginia Association of Counties, and one shall be a representative of the Virginia Wireless Internet Service Providers Association.
Now, the membership requirements might not be a problem on their own, but when "citizen members" of this category chum alongside Legislators who accept handsome campaign contributions from those "citizen members'" employers, things get a little dicey. Dampier noted that, in addition to pushing legislation that contradicts the goals of the Council by hobbling an effective method of improving local connectivity - municipal networks - the company she keeps in the council taints her own objectivity.
Let’s Break It Down
As Dampier points out, the Council’s chemistry is inclined to be anti-competitive and anti-muni when its citizen members’ livelihoods depend on results for big providers like Comcast, Charter, and SuddenLink. Here are the citizen members of the Advisory Council:
Ray LaMura, President of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association: In other words, a lobbyist whose organization has contributed $15,000 (see above) to Lady Byron’s campaign efforts. Dampier noted that his LinkedIn profile prominently features an anti-muni article and a quick peek at his twitter feed reveals similar articles from the Coalition for the New Economy and Watchdog, other anti-muni organizations.
Duront Walton, Executive Director of the Virginia Telecommunications Industry Association: Walton heads up another lobbying group, this one representing telephone companies and cooperatives. In addition to some of Virginia’s local telephone co-ops, the organization works for some big names, such as Fairmont Communications and TDS Telecom.
James Carr, CEO of All Points Broadband, a hybrid-fiber wireless ISP: Carr is not a stranger to the Capitol, having served in the past as the state’s Assistant Secretary of Transportation. He was also the principal architect of the public-private partnership to build the 55-mile Virginia Capital Trail.
Jane Dittmer: Dittmer was the Albermarle County Board of Supervisors Chair in 2015. She’s now working for the Virginia County Association and the Virginia Municipal League. Democrat.
Legislative members include:
Del. Jennifer Boysko (D): The lone Democrat among the Delegates and, as far as we’ve been able to research, the only one who has NOT received campaign donations from any of these anti-muni groups.
Del. James Leftwich (R): The Virginia Cable and Telecommunications Association contributed $1,500 to Leftwich between 2013 and 2016.
Del. Randy Minchew (R): Minchew also received campaign contributions from the Virginia Cable and Telecommunications Association, but not as much as some of the others - $2,000 between 2011 and 2016.
Sen. Frank Ruff (R), Vice Chair: Ruff has received $9,500 in campaign donations from Verizon and AT&T between the years 2010 and 2016.
Sen. Charles Carrico (R): Between 2010 and 2016, Carrico received some hefty contributions from Comcast ($5,500), AT&T ($3,175), and Verizon ($3,000).
Del. Kathy Byron (R), Chair: Byron has been the Chair of the Council since 2010. Since 1998, she has received at least $70,000 in political donations from national providers. Such linkages can tarnish her work both on the Council and any legislation she may introduce that affects broadband policy on the state level.
When we began looking at the Council, we didn’t anticipate reporting that almost every legislative member was receiving some level of funding from interests represented by two of its citizen members. Clearly, Byron’s allegiance is strong and deep, having been affiliated with national providers the longest. In fact, when she held a press conference on January 19th to address criticism of HB 2108, she was joined by representatives from Cox Communications and the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association. It's so nice to have friends to support you.
Which Side You On?
While Dampier's article dives deep into the specifics of the bill, he shares his perspective on Byron's loyalties and what the remedy is:
Ms. Byron’s clear conflict of interest between her bill and the Council’s goals should be grounds for her immediate resignation. It is hard to justify continuing to serve on a Council promoting better broadband while introducing bills that do the opposite. Taking political campaign contributions from the same companies that are directly responsible for the state of Virginia’s broadband today also makes it impossible for the Council to have any credibility as long as she continues to chair it.
Is Byron's service to her constituents and the people of the state of Virginia compromised by a conflict of interest? If so, then the purpose and effectiveness of the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council is, at best, questionable. Constituents, Virginians, and other Legislators, should consider the lasting impact of this corporate cronyism on businesses, residents, and especially rural communities who don't want to be left in the last century.