Surprise! AT&T Gives Nonprofits Grants and then the Nonprofits Support Its Acquisition of T-Mobile

October 17, 2011; Source: iWatch News (Center for Public Integrity) | The Center for Public Integrity puts it this way: “At first sight, it’s hard to understand why the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and clinic in Louisiana, would lobby the Federal Communications Commission.”

The faith-based service provider offered what it acknowledged was “an out-of-place endorsement” of the AT&T merger with T-Mobile, with Rev. R. Henry Martin explaining that “People often call on God to help the outcasts and downtrodden that walk among us, [but] [s]ometimes, however, it is our responsibility to take matters into our own hands. Please support this merger.”

What made a Louisiana homeless clinic weigh in with the FCC on a corporate merger? Perhaps it isn’t causal, but the correlation of the Rescue Mission’s letter to the FCC followed by only a few months a $50,000 donation from AT&T.

Among the others groups receiving AT&T grants and then offering AT&T endorsements are the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) (GLAAD’s executive director and a number of board members resigned after this information became public), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (no resignations there concerning this endorsement as far as we know), the American Red Cross of Northeastern California, the Arts Association of Newton County (Georgia), three Boys & Girls Clubs, the Delta Arts Alliance, Dorchester Habitat for Humanity, the Greater Sacramento Urban League, seven local Urban League affiliates (plus the National Urban League), and the United Way of Northwest Florida.

When contacted by the Center for comment, most came up with some explanation or another for their sudden interest in broadband access issues, but only the very naïve would miss the connection between this new blast of FCC advocacy on the parts of these organizations and AT&T’s philanthropic largesse. The Center noted that the head of the AT&T corporate foundation happened to be James Cicconi, a former aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who also serves as AT&T’s chief lobbyist.

Most corporate philanthropy is now strategic, with a focus on advancing corporate goals in both business and political realms. The days of corporate giving as simply a part of good corporate citizenship are pretty much gone, even for corporations like AT&T, which ranked number 86 on Corporate Responsibility magazine’s list of the “100 Best Corporate Citizens” for 2011.

Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the endorsement the of AT&T–T-Mobile merger from the American Federation for the Blind, the same place that Helen Keller worked for forty years. Keller was a member of the Socialist Party, a longtime supporter of the many presidential campaigns of Eugene V. Debs, and eventually a member of the much more radical Industrial Workers of the World (“the Wobblies”). What would socialist Helen Keller think of written testimonials from the AFB on behalf of AT&T?—Rick Cohen