Investor George Soros speaks during a program hosted by the New America Foundation September 13, 2006 in Washington, DC. “Soros-funded groups — Free Press, Media Access Project, the New America Foundation, and Public Knowledge — filed a joint comment backing LightSquared in a related regulatory matter,” reports Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney.
As Republican lawmakers begin to dig into the White House’s cozy relationship with a startup wireless company and the wealthy Democratic donor who owns it, a new character has appeared on the story’s edges: liberal superdonor, conservative bete noire and controversial investor George Soros.
Soros reportedly invested in the telecom company LightSquared through a hedge fund, and many of the nonprofits he finances have backed LightSquared in regulatory and policy disputes.
LightSquared wants to compete with AT&T, Verizon and Sprint to provide mobile broadband (for instance, email and Internet on your Blackberry or iPhone).
Harbinger Capital Partners, a hedge fund run by billionaire financier Philip Falcone, owns LightSquared, and deftly steered the company through some tricky regulatory waters (with would-be competitors AT&T and Verizon fighting him along the way) to get preliminary approval for its plan to start a high-speed broadband wireless network.
Today, LightSquared is scuffling with the global positioning satellite industry, which argues that the company’s current plan would interfere with GPS signals. Air Force Gen. William Shelton, head of Space Command, testified to Congress this month that giving LightSquared the radio frequencies it is slated to get would interfere with the military’s GPS needs.
Here’s the potential scandal: Ahead of Shelton’s testimony, White House officials nudged Shelton to go easy on LightSquared, according to Daily Beast reporter Eli Lake. Shelton reportedly said that someone (presumably in the administration) had leaked the first draft of his testimony to LightSquared — which Falcone denies.
Another government official said the White House pushed him to downplay the GPS worries.
Falcone is a big political donor who has given exclusively to Democrats and independents since Obama’s election. Emails have surfaced showing LightSquared executives discussing donations to Obama’s campaign in policy conversations with White House officials. Finally, there’s the eye-catchingdetail that another Obama donor, George Haywood, steered then-Sen. Obama to invest $90,000 in the company (then named SkyTerra) back in 2005.
LightSquared’s main lobbying firm is owned by Norman Brownstein, a major fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 nominating convention.
Into this stew of lobbying, investments, regulation and influence, enter Soros.
Soros has long been a whipping boy for conservatives, in much the same way that free-market billionaires Charles and David Koch have become the target of liberals.
While Soros’ influence is constantly and grossly exaggerated by conservatives, it’s still real. He generously funds a huge swath of the liberal movement, and has aligned his business interests with Obama’s big-government policies. For instance, Obama green-energy official Cathy Zoi left the Energy Department earlier this year to help run a new green-energy (and thus subsidy-dependent) investment fund Soros was starting.
In the LightSquared affair, Soros shows up repeatedly.
First, Soros is reportedly an investor in LightSquared. The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2010: “In 2009, while some investors were asking for withdrawals, others were lining up to put money into Harbinger. They included Soros Fund Management, which during the past year became a significant new investor, say people familiar with the matter.”
I asked about this, but a Soros spokesman emailed me, “As a matter of policy, we don’t confirm or deny information on our investments.”
Additionally, the telecom- and tech-related liberal nonprofits Soros funds have gone to bat for LightSquared in its various policy fights. In April 2010, the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission backing Harbinger’s business plans and met with an FCC commissioner on the matter. Four groups that belong to that coalition received six-figure gifts from Soros’ Open Society Institute the year before.
Six months later, those four Soros-funded groups — Free Press, Media Access Project, the New America Foundation, and Public Knowledge – filed a joint comment backing LightSquared in a related regulatory matter.
Donations from a politically interested billionaire, of course, do not make an activist group a “front” for the billionaire’s business interest. In fact, the unseemly fundraising-cum-lobbying emails were unearthed this year by the Center for Public Integrity, which Soros funded early last decade. And one profile, by liberal writer Jane Mayer, painted a picture of Soros almost as a rich sucker rather than a scheming moneyman.
Still, as Congress begins looking into the politics behind LightSquared’s regulatory victories, it’s worth asking if Soros, the Left’s leading donor, played a role in the affair.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner’s senior political columnist, can be contacted email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.
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