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A couple of years from now, if *Meredith* Attwell Baker showed up as a lobbyist at Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA), it probably would elicit shrugs. But when a sitting FCC commissioner resigns to join a cable company — the usual interim landing place of choice is think tank, law or VC/PE — it raises eyebrows. And when that company is one that just went though a multi-billion-dollar, controversial merger she approved as a Republican Obama appointee, well, it raises emotions and questions.
Comcast’s discussions with Baker began in recent weeks, according to Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice — several months after the FCC voted to allow Comcast to acquire control of NBC Universal from GE and merge the broadcast network and other assets into the cable company. “Ms. Baker has and will follow all ethics rules. Immediately upon the beginning of discussions she contacted the FCC’s General Counsel and recused herself from appropriate matters. She has been guided by counsel throughout the process of discussions with Comcast/NBCUniversal. She is permanently barred from contacting the FCC on all matters related to the FCC’s Comcast NBCUniversal Transaction Order. She is also barred from contacting any administration political appointee for the rest of the Obama administration (including re-election if appropriate).” Those are only some of the limits.
Baker announced her resignation (pdf), on Wednesday, effective June 3; her two-year appointment was due to expire at the end of June. A short time later, Comcast confirmed that she was joining the company as SVP of Government Affairs, reporting to Kyle McSlarrow, the former NCTA head who is now president of Comcast/NBCUniversal for Washington, DC. Her hiring is meant to fill a gap left by NBCU’s veteran lobbyist Bob Okun, who announced plans for his own firm last month. That’s when the talks with Baker began, according to Fitzmaurice. The daughter of former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, she has the background for the job, even without the FCC experience, including Bush appointments. But the FCC experience that makes her potentially even more valuable also makes her a lightening rod.
The response was quick and loud — and, with few exceptions, it wasn’t applause.
Critics of the Comcast-NBCU deal and opponents of revolving-door hires instantly cried foul but even people on Twitter who I don’t recall as deal opponents were offended by the idea that someone could go from vote to payroll so quickly. McSlarrow was succeeded at NCTA late last month by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, but Powell has been out of the FCC since 2005. He was at Providence Equity Partners in the interim. (In the small-world category, Providence holds equity in video portal Hulu; Comcast was required to step back from Hulu as part of the merger agreement.) Former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin lobbied the FCC against the deal on behalf of Bloomberg but perhaps he escaped some criticism by being against the merger; then again, his attitude towards cable operators was often viewed as hostile.
My own first reaction was less about Baker and more about Comcast, which was exceedingly careful throughout the merger review not to be seen as gaming the system and has been in overdrive to improve its public image. Hiring an active FCC commissioner who voted just months ago on its biggest deal is like letting the winning goal go in the net after killing a five-minute power play.
No matter how aboveboard, it not only looks bad, it leaves a bad taste and no amount of restrictions or caution will brush it completely away.