Santa Monica, CA -- AT&T, Comcast and Verizon planned the agenda for regulators' and lawmakers' luxury trip to Japan last month, according to emails obtained by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR).
The week-long excursion, hosted by the telecommunications and energy industry-funded California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE) and attended by AT&T and Comcast executives, was worth as much as $9,500 per person, according to the documents. The expensive trips would be illegal gifts if they were funded directly by CFEE donors, but a loophole in California ethics laws allows companies to funnel gifts through non-profits.
"Telecom companies chose everything but the entrees on this week-long junket to Japan. Despite the non-profit middleman, the trip doesn't pass the smell test," said Carmen Balber, consumer advocate with FTCR. "In a time where ethics scandals and political payoffs are shadowing politicians across the country, California must close the loophole that allows companies with business before the state to wine and dine lawmakers on luxury vacations."
In the emails, CFEE wrote to PUC Commissioner Chong: "We have had several conference calls with the AT&T, Comcast, and NTT people, as well as suggestions from Verizon... I will pass your suggestions on to the folks from AT&T in Washington and NTT who are actually putting the details together for us... We told AT&T from day 1 it has to b a balanced tour. Comcast is helping. Verizon also."
"When 'balance' in policymaking means hearing only the opinions of a handful of giant telecom corporations, California consumers are left out in the cold," said Balber.
State officials flew Business Class on Japan Airlines and stayed at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo where the cheapest room runs $463 a night. Every room is a corner room with a garden or Tokyo skyline view, and includes a marble bathroom that boasts a deep-soaking tub, mini satellite television and electronic toilet/bidet. The Four Seasons Tokyo spa, free to all guests, is renowned as one of the best in the country and includes a Japanese hot-springs bath with water shipped in from the Izu Peninsula.
In an email to the "Gang," Commissioner Chong shared group photos to send home from the trip. The communications also appear to reflect that a family member of Comcast V.P. Johnnie Giles attended, though documents reveal the trip was intended to be without spouses.
One attendee, Assembly Utilities and Commerce committee chair Lloyd Levine, co-authored legislation sponsored by AT&T and Verizon last year that opened the door for the companies' entrance into the lucrative cable television market by allowing them to receive one statewide video franchise while eliminating local control and consumer protection.
Other trip participants included Public Utilities Commissioner Simon and Senators Kehoe and Dutton, Chair and Vice-Chair of the Senate committee that oversees communications issues.
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FTCR is California's leading public interest watchdog. For more information, visit our web site: www.ConsumerWatchdog.org.