Comcast gifts to council targeted

U.S. subpoenas cable firm on ties to city officials

Complimentary sports tickets

Hearings set for Sept. on company's contract

August 18, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators have subpoenaed Comcast Cablevision for documents detailing gifts that the cable television provider has given to Baltimore's City Council members during the past few years, according to a company spokesman.

Comcast spokesman David H. Nevins said that U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio's office subpoenaed the company for documents six months ago but that federal prosecutors have made no further inquiries.

The existence of the subpoenas has not been publicly disclosed before, and they offer additional insight into DiBiagio's wide-ranging probe of city government. It began last year with the council and expanded this year to look into two former members of Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration and several developers.

DiBiagio's office subpoenaed all 19 members of the council for five years of documents detailing their finances and their relationships with certain businesses, according to copies of the subpoenas obtained by The Sun.

The council is scheduled to hold public hearings next month about renewing the firm's franchise agreement to deliver cable TV service to city residents.

Nevins said Comcast provided information about sports tickets that the company gave to council members.

"Our response was innocuous," he said. "We showed a minimal number of tickets that had been offered, and all followed appropriate reporting procedures."

In financial disclosure forms filed with the city in November, three council members -- President Sheila Dixon, Robert W. Curran and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. -- reported receiving tickets from Comcast.

"There's nothing about it that's quid pro quo," Curran said, who reported receiving tickets to two sporting events that he valued at "less than $100."

Dixon would not comment on the gifts or the subpoenas because of the federal probe. But in her disclosure form, Dixon reported receiving "tickets to sporting events" that she estimated to be worth $200.

Mitchell reported tickets to a Baltimore Orioles game.

Gifts from companies that do business with the city are prohibited. But there are exceptions: One allows for meals and beverages, while another permits free admission to sporting and cultural events if the entire council is invited. Such gifts do not have to be reported unless they exceed $50 or if a succession of smaller such gifts exceeds $150.

Council member Kenneth N. Harris Sr. reported that he works for Comcast as director of business services.

Nevins said the entire council had been offered tickets, mostly to Orioles games.

"We have sent out a couple of invitations to the council over the years," Nevins said. "Those who said they took them took them. We don't privately entertain [individual] City Council members."

Issuing subpoenas for documents is a standard investigative tool that prosecutors use to gather information. Receiving a subpoena for documents does not indicate that the recipient is a target of an investigation, legal experts say. DiBiagio's office routinely does not comment on investigations.

Comcast has held a franchise with the city since July 2001 and has paid a franchise fee of $4 million each year to provide service. The new franchise would allow Comcast to offer cable service for 12 years at the same annual fee: 5 percent of its gross revenues generated by city subscribers. The deal calls for increasing city cable customers' bills by $6 annually to pay for the channels that offer public access, governmental and educational programming.

O'Malley's law department, not the council, has conducted the negotiations with Comcast to devise the new franchise. City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said that he did not know Comcast had received subpoenas, but that their existence has no bearing on the council's deliberations about legislation authorizing the franchise.

Federal prosecutors "have sent subpoenas to a lot of people," Tyler said. "The mere existence of subpoenas on the street is not going to stop the government from functioning."

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