Chairman Billy Tauzin: Bell Ringer - Page 3

Reaching for Power

But most important, his political supporters — particularly within the telecommunications industry — had assured him and his aides of copious financial backing.

Almost immediately after Tauzins party switch in 1995, as the Telecom Act was being finalized, Republican leaders rewarded him with the chairmanship of the Commerce Committees Telecommunications subcommittee. But Tauzin faced a major roadblock in his efforts to smooth the way for the regional Bells — Tom Bliley, R-Va., who was chairman of the committee at the time. Bliley was a champion for AT&T and went so far as to deny Tauzin a seat on the conference committee that rewrote much of the act.

With Blileys impending retirement — and access to millions of dollars to spread to his Republican Party colleagues — Tauzin focused last year on winning the most crucial prize of his political life, the committee chairmanship.

Flush with good fortune as Mardi Gras rolled around a year ago, Tauzin took a moment to go after another chairmanship. Although his fellow representative, Chris John, D-La., was in line to take charge of the delegations annual February gala — known as the Washington Mardi Gras — Tauzin pulled rank on him. That gave Tauzin the opportunity to show his respect and affection for Abbott, a longtime political ally and a man whom Louisiana insiders see as instrumental in Tauzins success. Tauzin appointed him "king" of the event.

Six months later, Tauzin again picked Abbott to reign at a similar function, the showy, $400,000 blowout party to honor Tauzin during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. BellSouth and other big telecom players picked up the tab.

A few days later, another longtime Tauzin mentor, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., would fete Abbott a third time — tapping him to preside at the "Mardi Gras Goes to Hollywood" celebration at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

To Louisiana political watchers and to some former BellSouth executives and industry insiders, Tauzins Southern courtesy toward Abbott reflected the profound influence of the industry he regulates.

"From the minute he got here, he was BellSouths guy," said Andrew Schwartzman, director at the Media Access Project, a consumer interest group. "And if youre a hired gun, after long enough, you think youre right. I dont know when Billy came to think that, but hes been viewing the world through the BellSouth telescope since he got here."

Bunk, Tauzin said.

"Im not now nor have I ever been influenced by who makes those contributions to my party or to me personally," Tauzin said. "If the Bells, AT&T, anyone else comes to me with a proposal that moves in the direction of more regulation instead of more open markets, they will not find a friend here. Im not about that. People contribute to me, I hope, I expect, because they like the work I do. I dont do the work I do because they contribute to me. Thats a big difference. And if you cant make that distinction, you dont belong here."

Tauzin is proud of the fact that he raised $8.8 million for his political party last year, including a March dinner that brought in $7.2 million for Republican efforts to keep their majority in the U.S. House.

"Hes the kind of guy who understands hes got to have a lot of friends, and hes got to help his colleagues out there," said Ward White, a BellSouth lobbyist and former USTA official who hunts with Tauzin on Marylands Eastern Shore. "He would sponsor fundraisers for individual members, and call up and get people he knew to attend. And if they were friends of Billy, they attended."

Tauzins longtime spokesman and friend, Ken Johnson, said everything his boss has done is legal and conforms to all the ethical rules of campaign fund-raising. After all, Tauzins business is politics, and in politics one must raise money to campaign for election, Johnson said.