Comcast has been using every trick in the book to drum up approval for their pending merger with Time Warner Cable. They’re spending big on lobbyists, filling campaign coffers, relying on revolving doors, and strategically funding feel-good initiatives. But those are just icing on the cake. What really gives them confidence in their merger plan? The buddy-buddy relationship they’ve developed with regulators.
The folks over at MuckRock filed a Freedom of Information Act request and got their hands on some unsurprising but disappointing e-mails between a Comcast executive and a high-ranking Antitrust Division attorney at the Department of Justice.
The executive invited the attorney to a fancy viewing party for the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. The attorney, wrote more than once that the party sounded tremendously fun and like a great time. In the end she did decline, saying “Our ethics rules are very restrictive,” and pointing out that hanging out with Comcast probably wouldn’t fly.
The Comcast VP understood, although, she said, she “thought it would be OK since we have nothing formally before you all.”
The two, however, clearly have other ways to maintain a cordial professional relationship: after the attorney bowed out on the big party, she offered to schedule dinner.
People who often have to work with each other at different organizations often form friendly relationships, even when those organizations are in competition or conflict with each other. That’s why ethics rules, like the ones at the Justice Department, exist. But the timing here says more than the invitation does.
The Sochi opening ceremonies were on February 7. Comcast and TWC made their merger announcement on February 13, less than a week later. Clearly, the wheels were already turning at both companies long before a single dancer hit the floor in Russia. It’s no coincidence that a VP of legislative affairs at Comcast would be wanting to renew that particular acquaintance at that particular time.
The e-mails — all embedded at MuckRock — don’t have any “gotcha” moments and aren’t showing any ethics violations. Instead, they’re a window into how the political and regulatory world in Washington really runs.
There are tons of reasons that the Antitrust Division should block the merger. Consumers and advocates alike hate everything about the idea. Other companies object. Subscribers and some shareholders are against it, too. Even the United States Senate seems to have its doubts.
And yet Comcast is able to approach the deal as a foregone conclusion, and they’re probably right. Because when the regulators and the regulated are literally going out for drinks together, they’re probably going to keep getting along elsewhere, too.