AT&T's support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is once again under scrutiny, this time by a group that wants AT&T shareholders to vote in favor of a requirement that the company publicly disclose the amount of money it is spending to lobby at the state level, and in its support of lobbying groups such as ALEC.
The effort is being presented by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) shareholders AFSCME, Zevin Asset Management and Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate at today's Annual Meeting. As part of the AT&T proxy statement, the group is asking shareholders to support requirements that AT&T's board disclose its lobbying policies and expenditures.
AT&T is recommending a vote against the proposal, noting in its proxy statement that it already discloses its lobbying expenditures. "AT&T is committed to adhering to the highest ethical standards when engaging in any political activities. AT&T's policies and procedures with respect to political contributions are clearly set forth on the Company's website in the Corporate Governance section. AT&T publishes the AT&T Political Engagement Report semiannually; it is an itemized list of corporate contributions and employee PAC contributions to candidates and candidate."
A particular target of the effort is AT&T's support for ALEC, an organization funded by corporations that also includes state legislators and works to draft model legislation. The group came under fire for having drafted a model Stand Your Ground Law, similar to what was adopted in Florida prior to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot him. ALEC backers have pointed out the Florida bill preceded their model legislation.
In this instance, however, the corporate watchdog group backing the latest proxy vote, SumOfUs.org, is more focused on AT&T's efforts to shape telecom regulation at the state level to eliminate many of the rules by which AT&T and other legacy telecom players are still forced to play such as carrier of last resort and wholesale interconnection requirements.
"We are saying there should be full accounting and oversight of AT&T's lobbying efforts and its relationship to ALEC and that shareholders should be aware of what AT&T is spending," says Lisa Lindsley, a spokeswoman for the group, which has gathered 55,000 signatures on a petition backing the proxy vote. "The Board should be accountable and make sure shareholders are aware of the risks."
Those risks include damaging its public reputation among potential customers, she says.
CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) are also members of ALEC, which has drafted model legislation that addresses a number of concerns for incumbent telecom and cable providers including bills that would prohibit municipalities from building broadband networks, eliminate local cable franchises in favor of state-wide franchises and give network operators greater access to public rights-of-way while limiting local authority to collect fees.
AT&T is being singled out in part because of its presence on ALEC's board, Lindsley says: "AT&T certainly has a leadership role within ALEC that we haven't seen other telco players having," she says. The proxy vote is advisory, not binding, so even if a substantial number of shareholders vote in favor of it, the AT&T board does not have to act.
AT&T has defended its funding and participation in ALEC in the past, including standing up to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) when he inquired about AT&T's participation in ALEC following the Zimmerman acquittal. Noting that any answers given to Durbin would likely fuel ALEC critics, AT&T's longtime chief lobbyist James Cicconi, a senior vice president at the company, defended AT&T's free speech rights in a letter that was excerpted in an editorial in The Wall Street Journal.
UPDATE: 4/28/2014 -- AT&T shareholders rejected the idea of requiring an annual report on lobbying by a 3-1 margin.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading