Telephone executives gave over $42,000 to Rockefeller

Senator backs compromise on immunity in wiretapping cases

October 23, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Executives at the two biggest phone companies contributed more than $42,000 in political donations to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat, this year while seeking his support for legal immunity for businesses participating in National Security Agency eavesdropping.

The surge in contributions came from a who's who of executives at the companies, AT&T and Verizon, starting with the chief executives and including at least 50 executives and lawyers at the two utilities, according to campaign finance reports.

The money came primarily from a fundraiser that Verizon held for Rockefeller in March in New York and another that AT&T sponsored for him in May in San Antonio.

Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, emerged last week as the most important backer of immunity in devising a compromise plan with Senate Republicans and the Bush administration.

A measure approved by the intelligence panel on Thursday would add restrictions on the eavesdropping and extend retroactive immunity to carriers that participated in it. President Bush secretly approved the program after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rockefeller's office said yesterday that the sharp increases in contributions from the telecommunications executives had no influence on his support for the immunity provision.

"Any suggestion that Senator Rockefeller would make policy decisions based on campaign contributions is patently false," said a spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi.

AT&T and Verizon have been lobbying hard to insulate themselves from lawsuits over their reported roles in the security agency program by gaining legal immunity from Congress. The effort included meetings with Rockefeller and other members of the intelligence panels, officials said.

The companies face lawsuits from customers who say their privacy was violated. Administration officials say they worry that the suits, pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, could bankrupt the utilities.

House Democrats have balked at the immunity, refusing to include it in a bill they drew up and saying they would not even consider it unless the administration produces long-sought documents on the origins of the program.

Rockefeller received little in the way of contributions from AT&T or Verizon executives before this year, reporting $4,050 from 2002 through 2006. From last March to June, he collected a total of $42,850 from executives at the two companies.

Industry executives have given significant contributions to other Washington politicians, including two presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

A spokeswoman for AT&T, Claudia B. Jones, said contributions from its executives related to Rockefeller's role on the Senate Commerce Committee, not immunity or other questions before the Intelligence Committee.

Morigi said Rockefeller had come to believe that the carriers needed legal protection to ensure cooperation on national security operations. She noted his sponsorship of a bill to give cell phone subscribers more protections in their contracts, a measure that has been opposed by the industry.

"The idea that John Rockefeller could be bought is kind of ridiculous," said Matt Bennett, vice president for Third Way, a moderate Democratic policy group that has supported immunity for the phone carriers.

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