Ethics questions emerge about former Mississippi congressman’s telecom lobbying

When former Mississippi Congressman Charles “Chip” Pickering criticizes the proposed AT&T merger with T-Mobile, his words drip with conservative indignation and free-market rhetoric. But the evidence surrounding his life and work in recent years suggests that the onetime C Street Republican moved to K Street long ago.

Questions about Pickering’s ethical flexibility go back well into his tenure in Congress, but the most recent controversy began to simmer in 2008. It was then that Rep. Edward Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, sought a Republican co-sponsor for his Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Republicans were already largely unified against net-neutrality regulations, so it came as a surprise when Pickering became a willing co-sponsor.

Pickering had worked on telecommunications policy previously, and had already announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election. So Markey saw in him the ideal co-sponsor and a chance to give his legislation the patina of bipartisanship. In the end Pickering, staunch free-market ideologue by day, was actually a moonlighting advocate of greater government control.

That sentiment has re-emerged with Pickering’s opposition to the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger, and with his strange alliance with left-wing “media reform” activists.

In the last half-decade Pickering appears to have been manipulated behind the closed doors of his Congressional office. He also seems to have provided special treatment to those providing him financial backing during his tenure and a post-Congressional lobbying job.

The fallout from Pickering’s selective ethics, and the lack of lobbying transparency that has followed him into the private sector, raise serious concerns. “Two of the most important principles of lobbying law are transparency and fairness,” Florida State University cyber-law professor Fey Jones explained to TheDC. “The public has a right to know the possible sources of influence. That’s why there are legal schemes for registration and disclosure.” (RELATED: Congress, companies and states chime in on AT&T/T-Mobile merger)

Those legal structures could prove troublesome for Pickering if his failure to disclose certain financial interests attracts the attention of the Department of Justice.

Questions emerge

Pickering filed divorce papers in Madison County, Miss., shortly after leaving Congress. An “alienation of affection” lawsuit his ex-wife filed one year later alleged that Pickering was essentially promised the Senate seat of the retiring Trent Lott. Pickering, according to the lawsuit, had been having an affair during his tenure in office with Elizabeth Creekmore-Byrd, a board member of Telapex, Inc.

Telapex’s political action committee has courted prominent net-neutrality supporters in past election cycles, most notably Reps. Byron Dorgan and Ed Markey. The Sunlight Foundation’s “Influence Explorer” notes that since 1999, Telapex’s PAC donated a combined $16,000 to Pickering, Dorgan, and Markey. During Chip Pickering’s entire tenure in office, the PAC steered $14,000 in direct contributions to his campaign coffers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Pickering went to work for the lobbying firm Capitol Resources just months after leaving Congress, he lobbied on behalf of the Telapex-owned Cellular South. Public comments lodged with the Federal Communications Commission acknowledge his lobbying contact with that agency on Cellular South’s behalf.

The Creekmore family, based in Ridgeland, Miss., founded the rural wireless provider. Media observers caught the connection.

In 2009, The Daily Beast reported that Pickering chose a high paying job, and his mistress, over his own family and possibly even a Senate seat: “Pickering had taken his golden parachute from the mistress’ well-heeled and politically influential family, the Creekmores, going to work as a lobbyist for their Cellular South telecom company.”

Since 2009, Pickering has brought in roughly $1.4 million in telecom lobbying cash from Cellular South, Cbeyond, Inc., and other companies, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act Database.