Well-Connected: It Pays To Select A Messenger With Ties To The Political Power Base

In Indiana, where good-ole-boy, bare-knuckled politics are the rule, Ameritech is hiring well-connected players to carry its message to state lawmakers.

In Indiana, where good-ole-boy, bare-knuckled politics are the rule, Ameritech is hiring well-connected players to carry its message to state lawmakers.

Jon OBannon, son of Governor Frank OBannon, was brought on board in May to join a team of external affairs directors who lobby Indiana state legislators. His targets included the powerful chair of the Indiana House Commerce Committee, whose panel will consider legislation this year that would give state regulators authority over utility mergers and the ability to fine utilities like Ameritech when they violate service rules.

Aides to Gov. OBannon said his sons hiring by Ameritech would have no bearing on any decisions the governor might make, if utility legislation reaches his desk. "It would not enter into my decision," the governor said. "Any decision would be based solely on what is in the best interest of the people of Indiana."

His son concurred, and noted that his boss, Ameritech President for Indiana George Fleetwood — a former political operative at Ameritech — is a close family friend of the OBannons and a frequent dinner guest.

"That didnt sway my dad one way or the other when Ameritech was having its service problems," OBannon said.

The Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana doesnt take the issue lightly, however, and pointed out that Fleetwoods primary qualifications as president of the Indiana subsidiary seemed to be his political ties.

"I dont believe he ever had any telecommunications experience," said CACI official Dave Menzer, stating an opinion confirmed by others.

Ameritech also hired former Ohio Public Utility Commission Chairwoman Jo Lynn Butler, who left the agency in April. She now works on political issues for the company in Indiana, where she has appeared as an expert witness in hearings on telecommunications issues.

Ameritech spokesman David Pacholczyk defended such hiring. "We are certainly not the only company that might hire former legislators or state regulators or senior regulatory staff. Everyone does it, from the big companies to the small companies. It isnt unusual," he said.

Selim Bingol, corporate communications spokesman for SBC Communications, said legislative and regulatory expertise have value to companies like SBC in dealing with lawmakers who oversee their monopoly business practices.

Robert Johnson, an Indianapolis lawyer who worked under two governors at the Office of Utility Consumer Counsel, said there was scant hope state lawmakers would hold Ameritechs feet to the fire over service issues.

"The service complaints have slacked off," he said, "so the issue isnt as hot as it was. Ameritech is mounting a big effort in the legislature. And the proposed legislation would also affect other major utilities like gas and oil, and electric. I think youll see them all working against that, together."

On the other hand, Johnson said, SBC Communications has ruffled feathers in Indianas tight political circles: "They came in here like a bull in a china shop. It was like, Were from Texas. Well tell you how things work. That kind of thing doesnt fly too well in Indiana."

That may account for the appointment this year of Ameritechs external affairs directors, all of whom are homegrown with ties to individual sectors of the state, local chambers of commerce and local politicians.

David Bear, who fields politically related questions for Ameritech — consistently one of the largest political contributors to state candidates — argued that the companys external affairs directors are not necessarily assigned to lobby lawmakers.

"Part of what they do is work to help customers when they have problems," Bear said. "Theyre in touch with community leaders on those kinds of situations."

But internal documents obtained by Interactive Week clearly listed more specific goals, including: "Deliver key stakeholder influence as needed to support legislative and regulatory objectives."

For his part, Jon OBannon said he hasnt yet been asked to lobby prominent lawmakers. "Ive, you know, talked to some of them so far, just to introduce myself," he said.

That OBannon might need an introduction surprised some. His father, a Democrat, served as Senate minority leader and spent years in the state legislature before becoming governor.

"I grew up around there," the younger OBannon said. "My grandfather was a state senator. And my uncle used to lobby for the state telephone association."