June 10, 2011; Source: Politico | To persuade regulators and lawmakers to approve its acquisition of T-Mobile, AT&T is calling on several national, and progressive nonprofits for help, even though as Politico reports, they have "no obvious interest in telecom deals." So what's behind their willingness to publicly dial up support for the pending deal? Politico claims it's the "big piles" of cash AT&T has given them.

Groups such as the NAACP, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Education Association, say their statements in support of the merger have nothing do with the money. Instead they say they back the deal because it will make mobile communications more accessible to more people, especially "underserved populations." AT&T similarly dismisses any claims of quid pro quo. Said a company spokesperson, "For decades, AT&T has proudly supported numerous diverse groups and organizations.”

Among those for whom that claim doesn't ring true is Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to government transparency. “The money that nonprofits receive from their corporate sponsors sticks not only in their bank accounts but in their minds. This is what I think of as deep lobbying – there is an expectation that when push comes to shove, these groups will come out in favor of their benefactors.”

Politico reports that the NAACP, which has received substantial funding from AT&T dating back to 2006, including a $1 million contribution in 2009, and which says it consistently ranks AT&T near the top of an annual report card it issues on the telecommunications industry, was one of the first nonprofits to go public in support of the merger. A spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which has received $50,000 from AT&T, said GLAAD backed the deal because it believes "that the merger will increase functionality and speed, thus growing engagement and improving the effectiveness of the online advocacy work that is advancing equality for all."

Some observers say AT&T's support of well-known progressive nonprofits and labor unions, who they also hope will back the deal, is part of a strategy to win over liberal opponents. “It may be a way to try to get Democratic members of the (Federal Communications) commission particularly,” Sherry Lichtenberg, a telecommunications expert at the National Regulatory Research Institute, told Politico. “This is a standard way to do things: Figure out which are the strongest constituencies and go for them.”

Still, for its part AT&T can take credit for winning over support from nonprofits that it isn't supporting financially but who actually believe in the merger. The Sierra Club, for instance, said it supports the takeover because it sees mobile broadband “as core to the green-energy economy.”—Bruce Trachtenberg