Mystery Lobbyists Oppose Combination of T-Mobile With Sprint

(Bloomberg) -- It’s a Washington lobbying enigma wrapped in a mystery.

For months, an anonymous group has boldly criticized the proposed purchase by T-Mobile US Inc. of Sprint Corp., raising what the telecoms companies say are spurious national-security concerns: that the resulting company would use equipment from Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp., the Chinese manufacturers whose telecom gear the U.S. may seek to ban from its networks.

The group calls itself Protect America’s Wireless. It makes no secret where it stands on the $26.5 billion merger, and has enlisted a now-retired chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, an ex-aide to former President George W. Bush and a former State Department official to help press its cyber-security concerns.

The group has held two conference calls with reporters to promote its view.

But when it comes to saying who’s running the campaign and who’s financing it, Protect America’s Wireless suddenly becomes shy. It refuses to disclose donors or backers -- an increasingly common feature of the Washington influence game.

Formed in October 2018, Protect America’s Wireless has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the mobile-phone merger, which must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission and antitrust regulators at the Justice Department. The group is a project of Consumer Choice Alliance, itself a mysterious organization that says on its website that it includes “telecommunications industry leaders” but has no contact information.

The PAW claims have attracted enough notice that John Legere, the flamboyant T-Mobile chief executive officer, used his prepared congressional testimony to insist that T-Mobile doesn’t now -- and won’t after the merger -- use Huawei or ZTE equipment.

Legere, who faced sometimes hostile questions from Democratic lawmakers at a Wednesday House hearing on the deal, thinks he knows who’s ginning up the opposition. “There are predictable groups, driven by labor and Dish and others,” he recently told Bloomberg.

Dish Network Corp., which argues that the merger will result in price increases, denies any involvement. The Communications Workers of America labor union, which represents 700,000 telecoms workers, says it isn’t funding the group but has complained that the merger would lead to the loss of about 30,000 jobs. Legere has said the merger “will create jobs starting on day one” and has pledged not to raise prices for three years.

It’s not hard to see why Legere points a finger at the satellite-TV company and the union. At least one person from the Protect America’s Wireless roster of press-call panelists, Republican strategist Bradley Blakeman, has ties to both. A former deputy assistant to Bush from 2001 to 2004, he is a frequent guest on Fox News. His role in the 2000 presidential election’s Florida ballot fight led to him getting a part in the HBO film “Recount.”

Blakeman, however, insists he doesn’t know who’s behind the group that invited him to speak on the Jan. 31 press call. His strategy and communications company, the 1600 Group, is registered to lobby against the merger on behalf of the CWA. And Blakeman lobbied against another merger -- between Comcast Corp. and Time Warner -- on behalf of the Dish Network.

Although disclosures do not list Blakeman himself as lobbying on the T-Mobile/Sprint merger for CWA, his business partner, David Goodfriend, is registered to do so through the 1600 Group and at another firm that works as a subcontractor to the 1600 Group. Goodfriend, a former vice president of law and public policy at Dish Network, has also lobbied against the merger for Dish, the lobbying records say.

Blakeman has written articles against the merger. In an opinion piece in the Hill newspaper, he echoed PAW’s points, claiming that both carriers use Huawei and ZTE gear extensively. (The Washington-focused paper is a common destination for opinion pieces seeking to influence public policy.)

The ties don’t end there. NP Strategy Group, a Washington public relations firm that represents PAW, has sent emails on behalf of the union and the PAW, including announcing the press call featuring Blakeman. “Legere cares a lot more about who’s funding Protect America’s Wireless than addressing real concerns about foreign ownership in T-Mobile’s proposed merger,” said NP’s Cara Morris Stern on behalf of PAW, without addressing the lobbyists’ connections. She said PAW isn’t registered to lobby.

Blakeman, through LinkedIn, previously said “I only know what is published in the media and on their website.” He didn’t respond to renewed requests for comment. Goodfriend, who worked in the Clinton White House, didn’t respond to inquiries.

Dish says it hasn’t contributed money to PAW. The company, however, has been a vocal opponent of the merger, which it said would consolidate too much of the wireless market into too few hands, causing not only price increases but fewer choices for consumers and businesses.

Dish may want the merger to fail for other reasons. It has been searching for potential carrier partners to build out a mobile network on a cache of $40.9 billion worth of airwaves it bought at auction. Were the carriers to combine, they’d likely not seek additional spectrum as they focus on their own airwaves. That could force Dish to continue to build out the airwaves on its own -- an expensive and risky endeavor.

No matter who’s behind the mystery groups, they’re following the pattern of other Washington institutions, such as the dark-money organizations that seek to influence public opinion and government decisions without revealing the source of their money or explaining their motivations. Because traditional lobbying requires disclosure, the public can theoretically see which groups are advocating for particular positions and decide whether they’re seeking a competitive advantage through the law or regulations.

Disclosure Loopholes

Several workarounds exist, however. Strategic advisers and messaging consultants can remain anonymous because they don’t advocate before policy makers or on specific legislation. Nonprofit groups that spend money to influence elections can shield donors by promoting “social-welfare” positions. Details on their contributions often don’t appear in Internal Revenue Service filings.

Companies have also used anonymous groups to sling mud at competitors. They sometimes feature sympathetic experts or everyday people to convince the media that a grass-roots movement exists, a practice known as astroturfing.

Over the last few decades, groups sponsored by oil and gas companies, hedge funds, tobacco companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers have used social media, op-ed pages, congressional hearings and television advertising campaigns to give the impression that they are spontaneous, consumer-led protests while really pushing corporate viewpoints.

The question of funding has repeatedly emerged about PAW, including on a sometimes contentious Jan. 31 call, when reporters sought details. David Wade, a long-time aide to John Kerry when he was a senator from Massachusetts and the secretary of state under President Barack Obama, hosted the call and would say only that the funding sources were domestic.

Former Representative Mike Rogers, who led the House intelligence panel, has provided the voice-over on several videos the group has produced but was not on the media call. He, too, declined to talk about funding sources and his executive assistant said he wasn’t involved in forming PAW.

After his 2015 retirement, the Michigan Republican worked as a security adviser for AT&T Inc., whose corporate political action committee helped fund his campaigns. An AT&T spokesman, Michael Balmoris, said “We do not support or fund PAW” and said Rogers no longer does consulting work for AT&T.

The merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, if allowed, would reduce the number of major U.S. carriers to three -- and would likely create a more formidable competitor to the other two, AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. Together they control about two-thirds of the mobile-phone market.

T-Mobile and Huawei have a checkered history. The Chinese company was ordered to appear in U.S. federal court on Feb. 28 to face charges in a 10-count U.S. indictment that it sought to steal T-Mobile trade secrets.

CWA has also been vocal with its opposition to the merger, setting up a website called T-Mobile & Sprint Facts. Both CWA and Dish belong to 4Competition Coalition, which is fighting the deal on competition, rather than national security, grounds.

The union is one of the largest donors to Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while Dish’s political action committee has contributed to Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Sanders, who may again seek the Democratic nomination for president, and Klobuchar, who announced her candidacy last Sunday, joined seven Democratic senators in signing a letter opposing the deal.

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