By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
New York politicians rebuffed AT&T, but officials in Texas said yes. Politicians in California were also more approachable, particularly — and curiously — Assembly Speaker Nuñez, of Los Angeles, a man raised in poverty who has often spoken of the need for those with power to give voice to those without. But that wasn’t the walk he walked after AT&T and its employees gave him $79,500, according to Consumer Watchdog, during 2005 and 2006 alone.
In November 2007, the Los Angeles Times rode Nuñez hard for using his own charity to raise “almost $300,000 from companies and organizations with business in the Capitol to events that helped him politically.” The newspaper cited AT&T and Verizon, which was also looking to get into the cable-TV game, as two major contributors to Nuñez’s charity during 2005 and 2006 — the same years Nuñez was writing the law to end public access and benefit AT&T.
The League of California Cities, the lobbying arm representing scores of urban areas including Los Angeles, was dead against his bill. But the powerful group held no sway.
“You can stamp the word ‘ignored’ across the head of everybody who opposed that bill,” says William Imperial, manager of the Video Services Regulatory Division at the Information Technology Agency for the city of Los Angeles.
Assemblyman “Lightbulb” Lloyd Levine of the San Fernando Valley, chairman of the state Assembly’s Utilities and Commerce Committee, kissed off the desires of California’s cities and co-sponsored AB 2987 with Nuñez. Yet even as Levine was helping out AT&T, the L.A. Times published an article stating that Levine “solicited $30,000 from AT&T, Verizon and the Northridge Hospital and Medical Center to pay for ‘Assemblyman Lloyd Levine’s Fit & Fun Challenge,’ organized by Levine’s staff.”
A disgusted Dugan says that during this dubious period, Nuñez “carried AB 2987 and rammed it through the Legislature,” and “AT&T did favors that they knew would produce results.” Beyond pouring money into Nuñez’s charity, Collective Space, Inc., AT&T sponsored a golf tournament called the “Speaker’s Cup,” which annually raises $1 million to $2 million for the California Democratic Party. The state Democratic Party later transferred $4 million to Nuñez’s political committee — a huge infusion of campaign cash that increased Nuñez’s growing political power.
The way Dugan sees it, “you could say more AT&T money ... ended up with Fabian Nuñez. But it had been thoroughly and completely laundered.”
Nuñez, forced out of office by term limits and now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, a political consulting firm, reacted angrily to her allegations. “I don’t respond to immature or irresponsible comments like that,” he tells L.A. Weekly. When told that Dugan of Consumer Watchdog, who he has tangled with before, made the charges, Nuñez fires off: “Where’s the proof?!” then shouts out mockingly, “Who the fuck is Judy Dugan! I’d like to know!”
Nuñez says Consumer Watchdog has been “giving me and other Democrats a hard time for years” and complains that the Speaker’s Cup allegation is “bullshit!” And Gordon Diamond, a spokesman for AT&T, insists, “We’ve sponsored that tournament for more than a decade, regardless of who’s been speaker.”
But Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, says of his nonpartisan organization, “There’s no group that’s been more critical of Arnold Schwarzenegger. We’ve been hard as hell on both parties.” That doesn’t change the fact that Democrats Nuñez and Levine and their allies “gave away the boat to big industries” with AB 2987.
Nuñez defends his bill not as the demise of public access but as a way to “eliminate the monopoly status” of cable companies. “If you don’t have any choice as a consumer,” the former speaker says, “you probably won’t get the best product for the best price.”
But City Councilman Cardenas, the League of California Cities, and other opponents of the new law fear Nuñez has created just the problem he claims to be fixing. City Hall’s loss of power over local franchise agreements — power that will now rest with the far-off state Public Utilities Commission — wipes out L.A.’s leverage to demand improved local customer service and programming.
The Nuñez-Levine bill “circumvented local control,” Cardenas tells L.A. Weekly.
In public, cable companies with longstanding deals in Los Angeles and other cities complained that their customers would suffer under Nuñez’s bill. But the true sticking point was that Nuñez-Levine’s capitulations to AT&T forced cable companies to continue negotiating franchise agreements at the local level — only telephone companies like AT&T could bypass municipalities, Dugan says.