Comcast's Cohen on Baker Hiring: Nothing Inappropriate Happened

Comcast EVP David Cohen says that the company hired FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker because she is a "rare talent," in the telecom space; that both she and Comcast followed ethics rules; that the timing was because she was likely about to be renominated and NBCU had just had an opening on its Washington team; and that it is time for the media to move on.

That came following a speech at the Media Institute in Washington, where Cohen said the NBCU meld had gone fairly seamlessly, and he pledged to overdeliver on its diversity pledges as part of the deal.

Cohen was peppered with reporter questions about Comcast's hiring of Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker only four months after she, along with all the other commissioners, voted to approve the NBCU deal--along.

He said both Baker and Comcast were "absolutely scrupulous about the ethics rules" to make sure they complied with all of them, "so that her conduct and our conduct could not be second guessed. I believe that has been the case, and it is probably time to move on."

He suggested Baker's key asset was her ability to work with both sides of the aisle.

Cohen said he understood the criticism about revolving-door concerns, having been in government himself--top aide to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendel. Looking around the room--filled with lobbyists--he said he saw plenty of people who had been in government service.

He said the way you deal with those ethics is with the rules that are in place, which he suggested were likely the most stringent they had ever been. Comcast and Baker did that, he said.

Cohen said he did not know Baker personally, but knew she took her ethical responsibility very seriously. "I will say definitively, clearly and directly that Meredith did everything she was required to do under the law, and so did Comcast. If somebody wants to reinvent the rules and change them in the middle of the game, there should be a higher standard of creating any cloud than throwing around unsubstantiated and unverified allegations about something that might have happened. I think that Meredith's statement on Friday should have put this to rest, and I am happy to stand up here today and say that nothing inappropriate happened here. All the rules were followed, and all the laws were followed."

He also said Comcast hired her "notwithstanding the significant limitations" on her future lobbying because they felt she was such a talent. Those restrictions prevent her from lobbying on issues she dealt with at the commission or that involve senior administration officials for either the next two or four years, depending on whether the president is re-elected,.

She is free to lobby on Capitol Hill and to lobby the next administration. "We hire for the long haul," Cohen said. "At some point she will have the opportunity to engage in executive branch lobbying."

Cohen said that when the company sees someone as good as Baker is at navigating among both Republicans and Democrats and who has a background in the telecommunications space, those limitations were a secondary consideration. Cohen said he did not think her hiring was ill-timed given that Baker's nomination was up at the end of June, and her renomination was in the works and she would likely have been confirmed.

He pointed out that Comcast had an opening when Bob Okun decided last month to leave to open his own firm.

The Okun move also followed the naming of Kyle McSlarrow, former NCTA president, as president of Comcast/NBCU Washington.

"We had an important job we had to fill," Cohen said. "At the same time Meredith Attwell Baker had a nomination pending at the White House that was imminently going to be sent to Congress and presumable confirmed."

Had Comcast waited, she would have had to be nominated and then three months later, say: Thanks for the ride buys, I am now going to be leaving.

"If Bob had stayed another six months or Meredith been re-nominated last year, maybe the timing could have been different," Cohen said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.