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Did The Cable Industry Pay Ralph Reed Millions of Dollars to Orchestrate Tea Party Opposition to Net Neutrality?

As the New York Times and ThinkProgress have reported, Ralph Reed has returned as a force in the political world. A decade ago, Reed was a kingmaker in Republican politics and a corporate lobbyist who counted Fortune 100 companies like Enron and Microsoft as clients. His fall from grace, starting with the Jack Abramoff scandal … Continued

As the New York Times and ThinkProgress have reported, Ralph Reed has returned as a force in the political world. A decade ago, Reed was a kingmaker in Republican politics and a corporate lobbyist who counted Fortune 100 companies like Enron and Microsoft as clients. His fall from grace, starting with the Jack Abramoff scandal and culminating in a humiliating loss in his run for lieutenant governor of Georgia, is apparently now behind him. Times reporter Erik Eckholm points out that Reed has successfully revived his work as an operator within the Republican Party, most notably with his ability to ensnare nearly every Republican presidential contender to a conference he’s hosting this weekend.

However, little is known about Reed’s work reviving his business as an astroturf lobbyist. According to documents obtained by ThinkProgress, the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA), a trade association that represents cable providers like Comcast and Qwest Communications, has provided Reed’s lobbying firm with at least $3,462,117 worth of contracts in the last three years alone. Century Strategies, the firm founded by Reed and fellow astroturf lobbyist Tim Phillips in 1997, received the contracts for what NCTA deemed “legal and advertising” services. View a screenshot of the relevant documents here and here.

ThinkProgress has queried several staffers at Reed’s lobbying firm to learn about the contract. At CPAC this year, one employee for Reed told us that he did not work on the NCTA account and knew little about it. I spoke to another staffer in Reed’s Atlanta office this week and asked if the firm ever provides any kind of legal or advertising work for clients. “None at all,” she replied to the legal question. “Nope, we don’t,” she said in response to a question I had about Century Strategies creating or purchasing advertisements for clients. Why did the cable industry pay Reed millions for advertising work, then?

I asked Brian Deitz, the vice president for communications and public affairs at NCTA, about the over $3 million given to Reed. “We do not comment on specific financial matters related to NCTA,” was his only response.

The Abramoff scandal provided a window into Reed’s lobbying business. Unlike former lawmakers, who retire from office and use their knowledge of the legislative process to inform corporate clients, Reed tells clients he can orchestrate “third party allies” and “grassroots” support for their political goals. For Abramoff, Reed shifted money from Native American casino interests to groups like Americans for Tax Reform and state-based Christian nonprofits to mobilize seemingly “grassroots” support. He had Enron pay him to place op-eds in newspapers and to create Christian-themed front groups to deregulate the utility market. Tim Phillips, Reed’s business partner at Century Strategies for many years, used another evangelical nonprofit to run anti-Semitic attacks against Eric Cantor when he first ran for Congress. Perhaps the most recognized case was a contract from a sweatshop owner in the Marianas Islands to Reed and Abramoff to orchestrate evangelical opposition to labor laws. In effect, Reed fooled religious right voters into supporting sweatshops cited for widespread forced abortions and prostitution.

The business of asking corporations to donate to conservative nonprofits for stealth lobbying campaigns has been a winning model for Reed since he was in his early 20s. As Thomas Frank detailed in his book “The Wrecking Crew,” Reed got his start in college via the United Students of America Foundation. As a College Republican, Reed would collect money from corporate interests hoping to destroy campus-based Public Interest Research Groups (consumer action groups better known as PIRGs). As PIRGs fought to enact regulations on polluters, Reed and his college-aged buddies, including Abramoff and Grover Norquist, would solicit the same polluters to donate to their nonprofits to do battle with the do-gooders at PIRG.

In 2006, as the negative headlines from the Abramoff scandal appeared to doom the Century Strategies brand name, Reed’s partner Tim Phillips left the firm to become the president of Koch Industries’ front group, Americans for Prosperity. Along with serving as a front for Koch lobbying goals, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has, for many years, acted as a coin-operated front for any corporation willing to pay them. The Washington Post once wrote an exposecovering AFP’s work (at the time, it was known as “Citizens for a Sound Economy”) for sugar interests in orchestrating conservative opposition to wetlands protection.

As he has done for nearly 30 years now, Reed again appears to be masterminding phony grassroots campaigns for businesses willing to pay him. For instance, an exclusive ThinkProgress investigation from last month revealed that Reed’s lobbying firm is behind a new “Tea Party” front group dedicated to repealing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms passed last year.

Around the same time the cable industry paid Reed over $3 million, cable companies across the country were battling a regulation known as “net neutrality” — a rule that allows Internet freedom by ensuring that Internet providers, like cable companies, do not discriminate based on content or bandwidth speeds. The NCTA, Reed’s cable trade association benefactor, lobbied aggressively to prevent Congress or the FCC from enacting net neutrality rules. The trade association, along with member companies like Comcast, ran ads and hired many lobbyists.

Mysteriously, around the time of the NCTA million-dollar contracts to Century Strategies, Reed’s old business partner Tim Phillips took up the charge of defeating net neutrality. His group, Americans for Prosperity, pushed conspiracies that net neutrality has something to do with communism. As the FCC continued its deliberations over the rule, AFP launched a $1.4 million ad campaign with Tea Party-themes against net neutrality. The narrator breathlessly denounces the bank bailouts, then compares them to net neutrality, exclaiming: “Now, Washington wants to spend billions to takeover the Internet.” Watch it:

The claims made by the ads are patently ridiculous. Net neutrality has existed since the early years of the Internet, when government-sponsored engineers developed the first networks and recognized that bandwidth discrimination would hamper innovation. Indeed, rather than a government “takeover” of the Internet, net neutrality ensures that Internet content — whether from a Tea Party website, a commercial website, or even from — can’t be censored by a cable company or another provider. Despite supposed Tea Party opposition ginned up by groups like Americans for Prosperity, the FCC finally did hand down rules establishing net neutrality — with regrettable exceptions for mobile devices.

Did the money from the cable industry — earmarked for “advertising” — go to Tim Phillips, using Reed’s firm as a pass-through, as the two have done in the past? It’s not clear. Century Strategies, the recipient of the cable industry money, says it does not do anything directly in terms of advertising. Tim Phillips’ personal consulting firm, New Dominion Strategies, has listed the same P.O. Box used by Century Strategies as a mailing address. Still, Century Strategies, Americans for Prosperity, and the National Cable and Telecom Association have refused to elaborate on the Tea Party-themed ads.

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