Democratic lawmaker pushing telco immunity is newly flush with telco cash

by Ryan Singel, Threat Level/Wired

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) is reportedly steering the secretive Senate Intelligence Committee to give retroactive immunity to telecoms that helped the government secretly spy on Americans.

He has also recently benefited from some interesting political contributions.

Top Verizon executives, including CEO Ivan Seidenberg and President Dennis Strigl, wrote personal checks to Rockefeller totaling $23,500 in March, 2007. Prior to that apparently coordinated flurry of 29 donations, only one of those executives had ever donated to Rockefeller (at least while working for Verizon).

In fact, prior to 2007, contributions to Rockefeller from company executives at AT&T and Verizon were mostly non-existent.

But that changed around the same time that the companies began lobbying Congress to grant them retroactive immunity from lawsuits seeking billions for their alleged participation in secret, warrantless surveillance programs that targeted Americans

The Spring '07 checks represent 86 percent of money donated to Rockefeller by Verizon employees since at least 2001.

AT&T executives discovered a fondness for Rockefeller just a month after Verizon execs did and over a three-month span, collectively made donations totaling $19,350.

AT&T Vice President Fred McCallum began the giving spree in May with a $500 donation. 22 other AT&T high fliers soon followed with their own checks.

Prior to that burst of generosity, the only AT&T employee donation to Rockefeller was a $300 contribution in 2001. That supporter did not identify herself as a company executive.

When asked about the contributions, an AT&T spokesman told THREAT LEVEL: "AT&T employees regularly and voluntarily participate in the political process with their own funds."

Both companies are being sued for allegedly turning over billions of calling records to the government, while AT&T is also accused of letting the National Security Agency wiretap phone calls and its internet backbone. A federal judge in California allowed the suits regarding the eavesdropping to continue despite the government's attempt to have the suits thrown out on the grounds they will endanger national security. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed that decision in August. The judges seemed reluctant to toss the cases, but have yet to issue a ruling.

On Thursday evening, the Rockefeller-led Senate Intelligence Committee is marking up a bill to re-amend the nation's spy laws. While the text of the bill has not yet been released, the bill reportedly includes a way for the telecoms to escape the litigation against them.

Rockefeller's commitment to getting the telecoms out of court surprises some who remember that Rockefeller was originally disturbed enough about the secret spying programs that he hand-wrote a letter to Dick Cheney in 2003, expressing his concerns about the program's legality.

In a fairly stunning related news, Democratic Senator Chris Dodd went all in with his political capital Thursday, announcing he would unilaterally put a hold on the bill, which would stop the bill from being voted on.

Representatives for Verizon and Rockefeller did not respond to requests for comment.

The contributions and the following tables were found thanks to OpenSecrets.org.

UPDATE: Reader Theo writes in to say why the money, though tiny in comparison to Rockefeller's fortune, is not negligible.

Rockefeller is believed to have a personal fortune over $100 million. He spent $12 million of personal funds on his first Senate campaign. (http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-3521561.html)

However "in recent campaigns, he has downplayed his personal wealth in one of the nation's poorest states.  'I will not spend one single dime of any money that I have,' he said in 2002. 'So that I if I don't raise money, I won't spend money. I am on exactly the same playing field, so to speak, with anybody else who runs for office.'" AP

He's up for election in 2008. The cost of Senate races has increased several times over the last two decades.   With a serious Republican challenger in WV, which Bush won twice, such as Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, he could be forced to raise tens of millions of dollars.  That, or break his promise not to use his personal fortune, which wouldn't play very well in one of the country's poorest states.

So yes, even a Rockefeller has to raise money.  And in West Virginia, $50,000 is a lot of money.  It's about 2% of all the money he raised last year. (But I'll bet he's slightly more worried about being red-baited for suppurtin' terrists.)

article originally published at http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/10/dem-pushing-spy.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey