Lip service to transparency Pt. II: Free Press under-reported amount spent lobbying Congress, FCC, and the NTIA

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Free Press, the public face of the net neutrality movement, is a moral see-saw when it comes to transparency.

The think tank and lobbying group has publicly slammed the FCC for meeting behind closed doors with net neutrality opponents like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, and has called the FCC’s transparency pledge “lip service” to the concept of open government.

Meanwhile, the Free Press Action Fund has engaged in the same bureaucratic opacity as a matter of course. According to publicly available documents, Free Press has violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) with abandon during the last two years.

Not only did the far-left media reform group fail to disclose secret meetings with the FCC, it also:

  • Misreported its lobbying expenditures for the last five years
  • Failed to report secret meetings with high-ranking officials from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration;
  • Failed to report its involvement in the crafting of the Broadband Internet Fairness Act and the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009.

Ironically, Free Press founder Robert McChesney, the neo-Marxist media scholar from the University of Illinois, once said of his organization, “Free Press is leading the fight. They’re fighting at the FCC. They’re fighting in the court system. They’re basically fighting behind closed doors.”

Interesting choice of words. In 2005, Free Press reported to the IRS that it spent $200,000 lobbying net neutrality and broadband issues. But according to the group’s LDA filing–which only requires groups to disclose direct lobbying of individuals–Free Press spent less than $20,000 in 2005. If true, this would mean Free Press spent $180,000 on grassroots lobbying and almost no money attempting to persuade lawmakers and agency staffers.

The amounts Free Press filed between 2006 and 2010 are equally disparate:

IRS Amount for Lobbying: $200,000
LDA Amount Expended on Lobbying: Less than $20,000

Year: 2006
IRS Amount for Lobbying: $167,500
LDA Amount Expended on Lobbying: Less than $20,000

Year: 2007
IRS Amount for Lobbying: $261, 756
LDA Amount Expended on Lobbying: $26,544

Year: 2008
IRS Amount for Lobbying: $332,967
LDA Amount expended on Lobbying: $53,346

IRS Amount for Lobbying: Not yet available
LDA Amount expended on Lobbying: $25,282

Year: 2010
IRS Amount for Lobbying: Not yet available
LDA Amount expended on Lobbying: $7,399 (thus far in 2010)

Why was Free Press able to disclose so little in direct lobbying under the LDA while reporting so much more to the IRS? The organization did not respond to a request for comment, but one possible answer is that by not reporting its secret visits with regulators and congressmen, Free Press was also able to claim that it didn’t spend much money directly lobbying in Washington. (The LDA only requires lobbyists to disclose direct lobbying of individuals; grassroots organizing is counted only by the IRS.)

But it’s hard to imagine that the following actions count as anything other than lobbying.
On December 10, 2009, Ben Scott of Free Press wrote NTIA chief of staff Tom Powers an email, in which he asked for a meeting:

“I wanted to reconnect sometime soon. I hear you’re cooking up the next course in the Net Neutrality debate, and I wanted to offer my culinary advice. I’ve been in the Net Neutrality sausage making business for some years now, and I’m hopeful that I can be useful to you. I had a good meeting with Danny Weitzner a week or two ago – but I wanted to talk about the politics with you. Your intervention will carry enormous weight.”

In a follow up email, Scott and Powers agreed to meet at a Starbucks on December 16. The two met together a total of three times in 2009, according to Powers’ public calendar: Aug. 6, Aug. 26, and Dec. 16. On Aug. 3, 2009 Powers and NTIA staffer Larry Strickland both met with Scott.

And yet–Free Press failed to disclose these meetings in its quarterly LDA reports.

It also failed to disclose on its legally-mandated LDA reports that it helped with two controversial pieces of legislation.

The Broadband Internet Fairness Act, proposed by former Democratic Rep. Eric Massa of New York, would’ve required broadband providers to clear rate hikes with the FTC.

According to PC Mag, the bill was “written with the help of consumer rights groups and Free Press.” In the same article, Free Press policy director Ben Scott crowed that the bill was “a really inspiring example where grass-roots activism in response to an unfair business practice by a big corporation led to direct intervention by a congressional leader.”

That same month, Ben Scott appeared on a media conference call to promote the legislation with none other than Rep. Eric Massa.

And yet nowhere on the quarterly LDA report covering June 2009, when the bill was written and unveiled, did Free Press disclose its direct lobbying of Eric Massa’s office.

By omission, Free Press claims to have never lobbied Massa on the bill, to have never secretly met with FCC staffers, and to have spent on average 90% of its lobbying budget on grassroots outreach, and only 10% on affecting policy makers in Washington.

Is the Free Press intentionally underreporting its lobbying activities? Or has the single most vocal lobbying outfit pushing net neutrality simply been incapable, for the last five years, of accurately filling out its LDA forms?