Under House ethics rules tightened in 2007, lobbyists and the organizations that employ them, including corporations that have in-house teams, may not give gifts of any value, whether in-kind or material, to lawmakers or their aides. That includes event tickets, meals, an airplane upgrade or services that can be monetized. The same goes for the Senate. In September, the Obama administration proposed extending the gift ban from political appointees to all government workers.
But speedy service to fix an Internet connection or avoid a flight layover is not so easy to put a price on and therefore is accepted as a way of doing business inside the Beltway. Some lobbyists contrasted the programs with Countrywide Financial’s controversial VIP loan program that provided discounted home mortgages for public officials and other prominent figures.
“A lot of service-oriented vendors give special treatment, red-carpet service to Members,” said Kenneth Gross, who heads the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “Typically, they have not been viewed as gifts unless it’s a service that can be valued, one that you’d have to pay for if you could get.”
Lobbyists familiar with the workings of Comcast, the primary cable and Internet provider in the Washington area, said the company — whose angry customers have launched websites to document their service complaints — has for years provided special, expedited care for important Members of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.
“I knew about it but didn’t know any particular details,” said David Beckwith, who served as the vice president for communications at the National Cable Television Association from 2000 until 2002. “[Comcast] had effectively a list of customers who were considered to have influence. ... It’s not like there were specific criteria for joining.”
“The number that you gave was a flagged number,” said a longtime cable industry lobbyist who left the business in 2010. “Sometimes people would get flagged when they go into the system.” He added that the number was also used for friends and family.
Two spokesmen for Comcast insisted the company does not have a VIP program or special phone number for lawmakers or other influential players in Washington.
Beth Bacha, a spokeswoman for the company’s northeastern division, said that last year the company started giving all employees a few cards with a special number on it — which she would not share — to distribute to anyone having problems with Comcast service. That number goes to a pool of customer service representatives who handle “escalated” situations.
“I am not aware of there being another number,” she said. “Truthfully, I don’t know what to tell you. We do not have a VIP program.”
A Comcast customer service manager told a Roll Call employee who inquired about the VIP program that it does exist, but that the person was not eligible.
“So the VIP program is for a certain ... let’s see. I’m trying to figure out how best to say it,” the customer service representative said. “Your account is not marked as a VIP customer, but you are a VIP customer to us at all times.”