Homeless Shelters 4 AT&T-Verizon Duopoly

In June, Politico and the Washington Post ran stories showing how, in exchange for Ma Bell’s cash, nonprofits like NAACP and GLAAD turned into unlikely telecom lobbyists for AT&T’s bid for T-Mobile, which would give it a duopoly on U.S. cellphone service with Verizon.

The Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News writes today that AT&T’s largesse, and nonprofits’ cravenness went much further than that, spreading to small charities across the country. For instance, check out the Quotes of the Day, from the head of the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in Louisiana:

“It is important that we, as Christians, never stop working on behalf of the underserved and forgotten,” the Rev. R. Henry Martin, director of the clinic, wrote to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in June. “It might seem like an out-of-place endorsement, but I am writing today in order to convey our support for the AT&T/T-Mobile merger”…

“People often call on God to help the outcasts and downtrodden that walk among us,” Martin wrote to the FCC. “Sometimes, however, it is our responsibility to take matters into our own hands. Please support this merger.”

These quotes seem like non sequiturs, but they actually follow once you learn that Martin’s charity got $50,000 from AT&T. IWatch also tracks down at least thirty other charities that have taken AT&T cash while urging the FCC to approve an AT&T/T-Mobile merger. These not-so-telecom charities include the Special Dreams Farm of Michigan, the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation, and these guys:

AT&T executives also sit on the boards of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the Urban Corps of San Diego County, and the Mercy Health Center in Athens, Ga., all of which wrote to the FCC to tout the benefits of AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile.

IWatch gives us a glimpse of how AT&T’s “grassroots” ploy works, via this interview with the woman who runs Camp Diva for inner-city teen girls:

Patton, in an interview, said AT&T has given her organization about $1,000 annually in recent years, allowing her to send an additional two girls on a five-week summer retreat. She wrote to the FCC after the AT&T official who handles donations to her organization briefed her on the deal.

“When I was speaking with them about something else they told me they were interested to see what our opinions were and could we be of support,” she said in a phone interview. “We are suffering right now and we need their support.”

Pretty cynical, AT&T, but wholly unsurprising given the fact that the company’s charitable foundation is run by its chief lobbyist, which iWatch is smart to emphasize.

And I like that iWatch connects the behavior of AT&T and its charities with that of tobacoo companies and their client charities in the 1990s.

“The charity is put in a really difficult position” when the issue it is being asked to comment on is totally unrelated to its activities, says Bruce Sievers, a lecturer at Stanford University’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society. “The corporation is basically saying: we’ve been friends of yours and now it’s time to help us.”

The charities are in a difficult position because AT&T put them there, but that doesn’t let them off the hook. The ethical problem for nonprofits is pretty clear: They’re renting their Little Sisters of the Poor-type names to a giant company to help it get its way. That its way is anticompetitive and would hurt consumers in the long run makes matters worse.

That AT&T has to go to these lengths is revealing of how much it has on the line here.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,