Microsoft Plays Politics

WASHINGTON--In 2002, approaching a final deal with the Justice Department in its antitrust case, Microsoft flew one of Sen. John Warner's staffers to Seattle. During the two-day tour of Microsoft's campus, Chris DeLacy was briefed on the case.

DeLacy visit came one month before Microsoft and the federal government announced a settlement in the antitrust case that had dogged the company for more than a decade.

Congressional Business

Paying for congressional travel is considered by some to be a form of lobbying, but one less closely watched than campaign contributions or the public disclosure forms. Lobbying has come under intense scrutiny since the arrest of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials, fraud, and tax evasion.

Members of Congress and their staff members took about 23,000 trips worth $48.9 million paid for by private interests between January 1, 2000, through June 30, 2005, according to an analysis of congressional travel documents compiled by Medill News Service, American Public Media and the Center for Public Integrity.

"Paying for a member of Congress to take a trip is another way of gaining access," said Massie Ritsch, spokesperson for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks campaign spending.

"Always on these trips, the question is, who else is along for the ride? A lobbyist for Microsoft? Executives from the company? ... Travel almost always is a means for contact," he said.

Paying for visits

During the time period analyzed, Microsoft was the sole sponsor for nearly 200 congressional trips, costing the company about $390,000, mostly for events at its Redmond, Washington, campus. Microsoft also contributed to about 100 other trips with such partners as AT&T, Boeing, Amazon, and Starbucks.

"Microsoft as an industry leader has a responsibility to work with policy leaders as they shape policy," spokesperson Ginny Terzano said.

The trips allow Microsoft to demonstrate new technology for lawmakers and their staffs, and give the company's experts opportunities to answer policymakers' questions, Terzano said.

"Experience first-hand really offers a different perspective than just having someone talk about it," she said.

She said the company's Washington, D.C., office has grown in the past 11 years, along with rapid, industry-wide changes in technology and Microsoft's evolving approach to public policy.

"Both our chairman and our CEO have acknowledged that since the issue with the Justice Department, Microsoft has made a very conscious decision to build up presence in Washington, D.C.," Terzano said.

Antitrust Assistance?

Antitrust activists and Microsoft competitors alike decried the settlement accepted by the courts in November 2002.

"It was very clear it was a political settlement," said Bert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute.

Foer's group filed post-settlement complaints with court, arguing both Microsoft and the Justice Department hadn't been transparent about their negotiations, as required by federal law.

The Justice Department's approach changed during the case, Foer said. Clinton administration lawyers had been attempting to break up Microsoft, but after George Bush was elected, "the new administration . . . took strong remedies off the table."

The timing of some trips' appears serendipitous to key points in Microsoft's antitrust case. Terzano called it "appropriate" for Microsoft to brief lawmakers or staff on the antitrust case.

"In that time frame, we had to educate policymakers on Microsoft's position," Terzano said.

Travelers' Policies

Of the travelers Microsoft paid for, only DeLacy filed a trip disclosure form with the Senate secretary that said the purpose was to be briefed on the antitrust case, among other issues. Travelers rarely are quite so specific.

"Although this trip was several years ago, I recall that it was a valuable fact-finding experience that helped me to better advise Senator Warner on high tech issues," said DeLacy, one of the Virginia Republican's staff attorneys who is now in private practice. "I was able to see things and talk to people first hand in a way I could not have had I stayed at my desk in Washington, D.C."

Warner's office did not return calls seeking comment.

Lawmakers and their staff are required to complete disclosure forms after each trip, documenting destination, purpose, cost, and sponsor. The rules do not dictate specificity. Both House and Senate rules require member to determine that the travel is in connection with official duties.

Many of the disclosure forms for Microsoft-funded trips that the Medill News Service examined for the period between 2000 and 2005 included vague descriptions of activities such as "campus visit" or "fact finding."

The office of Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, took the most trips at Microsoft's expense--four--between 2000 and 2002, when the federal antitrust case settled. Staffers for Republican Sens. Larry Craig of Idaho, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Trent Lott of Mississippi each accepted three trips from Microsoft. Lott then was Senate Republican leader, and Hatch chaired the Judiciary Committee until June 2001.

Microsoft Enters Politics

Before 1998 Microsoft contributed little to political campaigns, and most donations went to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics' Web site. But in 2000, the year Bush was elected, more than 60 percent of Microsoft's $4.5 million political spending went to Republicans. Microsoft and its employees contributed to both presidential campaigns in 2004, but more to the Bush campaign.

"Early on, we were more hands off. As technology becomes more relevant to all aspects of our lives, new issues come up which policy makers have to address," said Terzano, who had been a spokesperson in the Clinton White House, citing matters like spam, patent reform, and cyber security.

"We believe advocacy efforts [with] members and their staff are really pivotal to getting them to understand really complex issues."

Microsoft's annual spending on congressional travel actually fell by about $10,000 in 2001, a time when the major antitrust case was heating up. Spending on congressional travel rose only about $5000 in 2002 to almost $41,000, but the following year, after the settlement, congressional travel expenditures tripled.

Good Timing?

Although there was no overall correlation between Microsoft's travel sponsorship and key developments in the court cases, there were some serendipitous upticks in the number of trips it underwrote.

For example, in February 2000, the month of closing arguments in the case, Microsoft treated staffers for seven senators to trips costing more than $18,900.

Most described the purposes of those trips as "fact finding." They represented a powerful collection of senators: two worked for then-Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada. Another represented former Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, then the Republican whip. Two others worked for South Carolina's senators, Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings, who were members of the Judiciary Committee.

In April 2000, when a court-appointed mediator announced settlement talks had failed, the Justice Department called for Microsoft to be broken apart. That same month, Microsoft spent more than $14,000 to bring ten congressional travelers to Seattle. Again, most visitors listed purposes like "campus visit" or "educational."

Public scrutiny of lobbying has not changed the way Microsoft works with lawmakers, Terzano said.

Microsoft believes, she said, that "it has a responsibility to serve as a resource to policymakers, and we will continue to work with them."

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