Alison Hartson on the systemic corruption at center of AT&T scandal

Originally published March 15, 2018 on Medium

Telecom behemoth AT&T hired Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to “advise” the company on how to deal with the president in their bid to purchase Time Warner. Media outlets have latched on to this shiny object of a story for days now, but none have even scratched the surface of what this story is really about: Corruption in our entire political system, a systemic cancer that continues to plague American policies, governance and democratic values — on both sides of the aisle.


AT&T is one egregious example of a corporate conglomerate that has been legally bribing our politicians for decades, yet current media coverage would have you believe this is a Trumpian scandal fit for the 24-hour news cycle. Establishment Democrats will call to “Resist!” this Republican corruption. Some have already called for an investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the problem here isn’t so simple, nor sensational. It’s not even shiny. It’s so covered in the dirt of decades of corporate influence that the establishment can’t see the corruption right in front of their eyes.

Let’s do some digging. The telecommunications industry is one of many that has been buying access to our representatives for the better part of a century. Legislators in California have been cashing in on campaign contributions from the telecommunications industry — and from AT&T specifically — for years. The LA Times summed up this relationship in a 2012 headline:

No other single corporation has spent more trying to influence legislators in recent years. It dispenses millions in political donations and has an army of lobbyists.

Take annual hush-hush golf fundraisers — The Pro Tem Cup at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, and the Speaker’s Cup in Pebble Beach. Both events, sponsored by AT&T and friends for more than a decade, feature tickets for tens of thousands of dollars a person, and California Democrats happily use their coffers to purchase party favors for their deep-pocketed corporate buddies (in 2015, The Sacramento Bee reported attendees at the annual SoCal fundraiser received coupons for Apple Watches). That’s where your donations to the Democratic party go. To tech gadgets. For lobbyists.

But let’s focus here on AT&T and our representatives from California. Voices of Monterey Bay last week reported that AT&T gave more than half a million dollars to the California Democratic Party in 2017 and about $330,000 to the California Republican Party. This doesn’t include contributions made to individual candidates.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, an institution in California Politics, has received more than a million dollars from the telecommunications industry alone throughout her career. She also happens to be a ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.


California Democrats, wracked by scandals in 2014, saw the poor optics of the Pro Tem Cup, and Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and his eventual successor Kevin De Leon issued a joint statement cancelling the fundraiser.

“These are unprecedented times and they demand that we take a step back and take stock of how we all do the people’s business and balance it against the demands of running for office,” they said.

How much stock can you take in a year? The Pro Tem Cup, featuring newly minted De Leon as Senate head, returned in full swing in 2015, months after De Leon took the helm of the California Senate and eliminated the The Office of Oversight and Outcomes, a department started in 2008 by Steinberg.

Good politicians will argue that hobnobbing with donors doesn’t influence their legislative decisions, but minor research indicates that trading votes for donations is par for the course.

Take California’s SB 649.

To follow this, we’ll need to step back to early 2017 (at the very? least). Then Senate Pro Tem and self-branded “progressive” Kevin De Leon had by then received over $57,000 from AT&T between 2006 and 2014. The major telecom company was his top campaign contributor in 2010, and as recently as 2016, De Leon reports receiving $7,000 from AT&T for his abandoned campaign for lieutenant governor of California.

In addition, De Leon’s January 2017 swearing-in ceremony — a $50,000 affair — was paid for, his campaign said, by the California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation. Guess who’s a major contributor to CLLCF… AT&T.

Fast forward to June 2017. The California Senate passes SB 649, with De Leon’s support. This bill was opposed by an incredible number of De Leon’s constituents including 215 cities, six mayors, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Working Group, to name several dozen. Gov. Jerry Brown eventually vetoed the bill because it “took too much control away from the cities and counties.”

Whew. This all may seem complicated but it honestly comes down to this: Our representatives are bought and paid for at almost every level. They are not in office to represent you and me. They are there to advocate for their donors and maintain their careers. That’s why I’ve devoted the better part of the last decade to ending this corruption. As National Director of a non-profit whose sole mission is to end political corruption once and for all, I worked with legislators in blue states, red states, purple states and what I heard from constituents throughout the country is that they are done with this disgusting status quo. They want leaders who will voluntarily represent them without waiting for a law that demands it. They want representatives who will lead the voters, not follow the polls. They don’t want leaders who take years to “evolve” into supporting evidence-based research. They want representatives who understand what it’s like to work 40 hours a week and still struggle to get by. That’s why I’ve pledged not to take a dime of corporate or dark money.

I hope that you, voters, will take the time to sift through the barrage of scandalous shiny objects presented to you day in and day out. Please research all candidates vying for elected office. Don’t take what the media spoon-feeds you as gospel. You’re smarter than that. I know it. And I’m counting on it.

Alison Hartson