Ethical Conundrum – Charitable Giving as Lobbying?

A story in yesterday’s Politico perked me up on an otherwise tedious Metro ride home. The paper reported on AT&T’s practice of donating ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’ over recent years to charities favored by top lawmakers who oversee telecomm policy. Politico suggests this is an alternate form of lobbying, and that the resultant relationship-building could prove very valuable for AT&T, particularly in relation to its intended acquisition of T-Mobile (see my March 25 post below for more on that). 

Now, these recipient charities may be well established and have admirable goals – neuroscience and alzheimers research, education, minority development. That they could reap significant donations from AT&T’s deep pockets is good for them and for the stakeholders they serve.  That the giving is highly targeted to what will curry favor with Congressional power players is being seen as somewhat problematic. 

Given that companies like AT&T spend enormous sums on lobbying anyway, I’m conflicted as to whether this newer charity twist is that bad.  We should hope, in a more perfect world, that our representatives will honor their duty to be impartial and act in the public good.  Those who are inclined to lean toward big donors are probably going to do so regardless – so if charities get helped in the process, is that such a bad thing? 

Surely AT&T is not the only company to pursue this practice.  With a proposed  merger that is almost universally seen as unfavorable for everyone except AT&T, and especially for consumers and employees who are sure to lose their jobs, it may be telling to see how the deal proceeds in Washington – and if it fails, does AT&T’s philanthropy decline with it.

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