FCC holds investors-only briefing

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WASHINGTON -- With federal regulators deadlocked on what may prove to be the largest telecommunications merger in history, news about progress on the deal has become scarce and highly coveted.

So the small group of clients of Banc of America Securities LLC were privileged Wednesday to get an exclusive briefing from top-ranking staff of the FCC at a hotel a block away from agency headquarters.

The meeting was described as "timely" in a brief item in Communications Daily, the telecommunications industry newsletter, with "topics including the AT&T/BellSouth merger and net neutrality pending at the Commission."

The meeting, however, was not open to the public or the media -- it was for Banc of America "clients only."

When a reporter from The Associated Press walked into the meeting room during a lunch break, he was escorted out by Banc of America Securities' managing director, David W. Barden.

The FCC has been criticized in the past by public interest groups for its cozy relationship with industry, and Wednesday's episode was particularly disturbing, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm.

"When public officials are speaking privately, expressing things to influential investors, that they are unwilling to share with the rest of the public, taxpayers have a right to be upset," he said. "What do they have to say that they can't say to everyone else?"

A bank spokesman declined to comment.

The list of speakers scheduled to appear included the acting bureau chief of the Wireless Bureau, Catherine Seidel; the chief of the Wireline Bureau, Thomas Navin; and the chief of the Media Bureau, Donna Gregg.

Also promised was an appearance by Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, plus aides to commissioners Michael Copps, Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate. Adelstein was traveling and unavailable for comment, but his office said he did not attend the meeting. Scott Bergmann, Adelstein's legal adviser for wireline issues, was present.

Adelstein's office released a statement that said: "We regularly meet with all types of parties to broadly discuss policy goals and priorities. As is our practice, in the meeting today we specifically decline to comment on any transactions pending before the FCC."

FCC spokesman David Fiske declined to say who from the agency had attended.

The commission is currently deadlocked on the proposed buyout of BellSouth Corp. by AT&T Inc. The FCC is also considering a major rewrite of rules regarding media ownership.

FCC rules require anyone who meets with a commissioner or FCC staff member to document it in an "ex parte" filing that notes who was present, when the meeting took place and what was discussed.

Such a report is unnecessary if the meeting is a general discussion that does not involve a specific proceeding before the FCC.

Industry executives regularly meet with FCC commissioners and staff at the agency's headquarters to lobby for their companies, and those meetings are not public. When commissioners address trade shows, those meetings are open and regularly attended by reporters.

It is unclear how common private meetings with investors and FCC staff are because there is usually no record of them. Enforcement of ex parte rules is often spotty. Whether Wednesday's meeting will require an ex parte notice is uncertain.

Asked to comment on Wednesday's meeting, Fiske read a prepared statement that said agency staff "have always met regularly with a broad array of individuals and groups on a multitude of issues and in a variety of formats. We welcome this interaction and encourage wide participation by outside parties creating a public record on our issues."
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