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Comcast and Rendell: A High-Octane Connection

Comcast and Rendell: A High-Octane Connection

Conflicts of Interest Pervade the Relationship

BY CHRIS FREIND

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s recent decision to criticize the Sunoco oil company for laying off 750 workers raises a number of intriguing questions. While the governor saw fit to hold a press conference solely to excoriate Sunoco, calling the company’s decision “unconscionable,” he has been notably silent concerning 3,000 layoffs — four times the Sunoco amount — which Comcast has executed in the past year.

Since the governor’s election in 2002, SUN PAC, the Sunoco political action committee, has contributed $55,000 to Mr. Rendell, with Sunoco employees donating an additional $2650.

During that same span, Comcast’s PAC, its employees, and the spouses of its top executives donated $634,350 to the governor. Additionally, Comcast spent at least $100,000 on Mr. Rendell’s inauguration festivities in 2007, being designated “Benefactor” by the governor, the highest level of contributor.
The David Cohen Factor

The governor’s closest ally at Comcast is Executive Vice President David Cohen, who has contributed $80,000 to Mr. Rendell. Mr. Cohen is a longtime Rendell confidante and fundraiser, serving as Chief of Staff when Rendell was Mayor of Philadelphia. Prior to joining Comcast, Cohen was Chairman of the Ballard Spahr law firm, where Mr. Rendell worked while campaigning for governor. Ballard, which provides legal counsel to Comcast, has come under intense media and legislative scrutiny for the frequency and amount of secretive no-bid contracts it has received under the Rendell Administration. In addition, it received almost $800,000 for work on the Pennsylvania Turnpike without any contract.

Ballard Spahr LLP has contributed $481,000 to the governor’s campaigns, with its attorneys donating an additional half million dollars. Also, the Philadelphia Future political action committee (PAC), registered at the Ballard offices and whose treasurer is Mr. Cohen, pumped $471,000 into the Rendell coffers.

The address on Gov. Rendell’s campaign finance reports is the 51st floor of 1735 Market Street in Philadelphia. Ballard Spahr occupies the entire floor.

Cohen also serves as Chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Despite Mr. Rendell’s unprecedented intrusion into the private business sector by his attack on Sunoco, a major Philadelphia employer and Chamber member, no action was taken by the Chamber to defend the company.

The Comcast High Speed Money Connection

The Comcast money trail doesn’t end with Mr. Cohen. Ralph Roberts, Comcast’s founder, his son Brian, who serves as Chairman and CEO, and several other executives are strong Rendell backers. The elder Roberts contributed $52,500, and the son, $48,500. Comcast Chief Operating Office Stephen Burke donated $32,000.

According to Department of State records, the spouses of Comcast executives also made high-dollar contributions to Mr. Rendell. Rhonda Cohen donated $156,000, and the Roberts’ wives, Suzanne and Aileen, respectively, combined for another $25,250. Gretchen Burke contributed $5000.

The Comcast Corporation PAC contributed $93,500 to Rendell campaigns.

Rendell: On The Comcast Payroll

In addition to his $145,000 salary as governor, Mr. Rendell has also worked as a part-time football commentator for Comcast, earning a reported $20,000 per year. This arrangement has led many to question the apparent conflict, but the governor simply brushes off such criticism. As governor, Mr. Rendell has also collected a paycheck from the University of Pennsylvania, where Cohen serves as the Chairman-elect on the Board of Trustees, for his services as a lecturer. The university is a recipient of substantial state aid.

Comcast Aid: An End Run Around the Legislature

In constructing its new Center City headquarters, Comcast executives lobbied the state government for financial assistance. The firm sought a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) designation for its building, which would have provided local and state tax relief. Despite the fact that KOZ’s are intended to spur development in areas of blight, not prosperous Center City locations, the $30 billion company almost succeeded with the help of Gov. Rendell. Had the Comcast effort prevailed, the company would have been exempt from state and local business taxes until 2015.

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania legislature defeated the efforts of Comcast and the governor.

The governor then made an end-run around the legislature, funneling nearly $43 million in taxpayer money to aid Comcast and pay for infrastructure near the Comcast building, prompting outrage from many. Comcast’s direct incentives were nearly $13 million.

The economic development funds equated to roughly 10% of the building’s cost.

A Cynical Public

At a time when political corruption trials, pay to play scandals and conflicts of interest are rampant, polls show a public with an increasingly cynical view of their government and elected officials. The Pennsylvania legislature has responded by introducing a number of bills aimed at how state contracts are awarded.

Under the Rendell Administration, over $1 billion in no-bid contracts have been awarded.

Chris Freind can be reached at cf@thebulletin.us

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March 28, 2009 at 2:15 pm Comments (0)