Special To Insider Update --- Rep. Sessions Lends A Hand To SBC
By David Hatch
Texas-based SBC Communications has plenty at stake with its
telecommunications business these days: The Bell company is seeking
approval to merge with AT&T, and is planning to deploy a nationwide
Internet-based television service to compete with cable.
The company also is fighting efforts by cities to build their own
high-speed Internet networks. On that front, SBC has a friend in Rep.
Pete Sessions, a Texas conservative Republican with professional and
political ties to the firm.
In late May, Sessions introduced legislation that would ban municipal
broadband networks in areas where companies such as SBC offer similar
services. SBC supports the bill, but spokesman Kevin Belgrade said the
issue goes beyond any one company.
Sessions, a House Rules Committee member, does not sit on any panels
that regulate communications -- but his ties to SBC are as thick as
Texas sagebrush. He was an executive with Southwestern Bell Telephone,
SBC's precursor, for 16 years, and his wife, Juanita (Nete) Sessions,
is a vice president for billing with SBC.
During the 2003-2004 election cycle, individuals and political action
committees associated with SBC were Sessions' third largest donor,
contributing $23,750, according to the watchdog Center for Responsive
PACs operated by Verizon Communications -- another Bell firm that
opposes most municipal networks but that has not taken a stance on
Sessions' measure -- also gave Sessions $9,000, according to the
Federal Election Commission. And the U.S. Telecom Association, whose
members include the Bells, gave another $2,000.
Sessions also revealed in a 2003 financial disclosure that he owned
between $1,001 and $15,000 in SBC assets at the end of 2003. He held
the same amount of assets in Verizon and BellSouth, and up to $1,000
in AT&T, SBC's merger partner. Sessions' calendar year 2004 disclosure
will be released Wednesday.
Juanita Sessions, meanwhile, held SBC stock options valued between
$500,001 and $1 million through the end of 2003, and additional assets
in BellSouth and SBC valued from $1,001 to $15,000 each. She also had
an investment worth up to $1,000 in WorldCom, since renamed MCI.
Supporters of government broadband say localities simply want to offer
inexpensive connectivity to low-income and inner-city residents who
cannot otherwise afford it -- or who might get bypassed by other
providers. Harold Feld, a senior vice president at the Media Access
Project, a public-interest law firm, said municipalities make
investments "all the time" to improve citizens' lives.
"Let local people decide how to spend local dollars," he said.
Sessions spokeswoman Gina Vaughn said municipal networks discourage
competition by forcing companies to compete with the government. She
said Sessions wants localities to spend taxpayer dollars on more
Sessions' bill was referred to the House Energy and Commerce
Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Joe Barton, another Texas
Republican. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, PACs and
individuals associated with SBC were the fifth biggest contributor to
Barton's 2004 campaign, giving a total of $15,000.
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