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The Center for Public Integrity

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Emails show wireless firm's communications with White House as campaign donations were made

Posted: 09/14/11 05:01 PM ET

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Wireless firm LightSquared pressed its case for government approval of a new national broadband network in numerous contacts with presidential aides, at times citing its fundraising for Democratic causes and President Obama, White House emails show.

On the day that LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja made a $30,400 contribution to the Democratic Party, two of his deputies appealed to the White House for meetings with top technology advisers to Obama, according to emails obtained by iWatch News .

"Hi Aneesh!" LightSquared representative Dave Kumar wrote to Aneesh Chopra, the president's chief technology adviser on Sept. 23, 2010. "I touched base with my client Sanjiv Ahuja and he expressed an interest in meeting with you...He is going to be in DC next week for a fundraising dinner with the President."

Earlier that same day, LightSquared lawyer Henry Goldberg wrote to James Kohlenberger, then chief of staff for the White House Office of Science and Technology. His email said:

"You may recall that you met with Sanjiv Ahuja about a year ago, with Phil Falcone of Harbinger, as Phil & Sanjiv were finalizing their plans for a new wireless broadband network...

"Sajiv will be at a fund-raiser dinner with the President on September 30 and would like to visit with you, perhaps Tom Kalil, and Aneesh Chopra, if at all possible."

Falcone, a New York hedge fund manager, is the principal owner of LightSquared and Ahuja its CEO. Kalil is deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Chopra is the White House Chief Technology Officer.

LightSquared won initial Federal Communications Commission approval for its broadband network despite concerns it could disrupt vital communications and navigation systems. The Virginia company drew on influential Washington lawyers and personal friendships, as it sought to set up meetings with key administration officials, as evidenced in emails and other records obtained by iWatch News through the Freedom of Information Act.

LightSquared promises to create thousands of jobs and provide broadband wireless service to more than 260 million Americans. But its critics contend that the $14 billion venture could cripple Global Positioning Systems, or GPS, gear and threaten aviation safety, disrupt military and rescue operations--and even interfere with high-tech farming equipment and cell phones in certain parts of the country.

Terry Neal, LightSquared's senior vice president of communications, said White House officials routinely meet with firms such as his to discuss advances in technology.

"Because we are the only company on the horizon that can quickly help the federal government meet its stated objective of near universal wireless coverage for all Americans, it was natural that LightSquared have meetings with the administration. LightSquared's network promises to expand access to wireless broadband, increase competition in the marketplace, give consumers new choices, and, ultimately, lower prices. We acknowledge we wanted to discuss that with administration officials," Neal said in a statement.

Republicans in Congress have tried for months--without success--to probe the firm's contacts with administration officials, including FCC chief Julius Genachowski, an Obama campaign "bundler," whose agency has given conditional approval to LightSquared. The FCC chief is set to testify at a hearing Thursday before a House Armed Services subcommittee.

The FCC has promised it will compel the company to resolve the GPS interference issue before making a final decision.

300 pages of documents released

LightSquared's ties to major Democratic campaign contributors and Obama staff and supporters--and the large donations its majority owner Falcone has made to Democrats--were detailed by iWatch News in July. White House officials downplayed those ties and argued they have no sway over the FCC.

"The FCC is an independent agency with its own standards and procedures for reviewing these types of decisions and we respect that process," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

But emails and other records reveal that LightSquared's reach into the administration was more extensive than officials have acknowledged. The records also show that White House technology officials were advised of serious concerns among GPS proponents over the possible threat to air traffic control and other critical emergency responders.

Though White House officials redacted significant portions of more than 300 pages of emails and other records, the documents richly illustrate how big industries can power their way into government corridors in Washington.

After its initial lobbying, the company received a nod of support from the White House technology office as Falcone launched his ambitious plan.

On July 20, 2010, Goldberg emailed Kohlenberger a news release trumpeting LightSquared's launch with the note: "It's happening. Thanks for your help and encouragement. As we bolt together the network, we'll come in with details."

In response, Kohlenberger emailed back his congratulations, adding: "very exciting."

Company spokesman Neal said no specific "help and encouragement" had been requested other than assistance in setting up meetings with White House officials.

On Sept. 22, 2009, Falcone and LightSquared CEO Ahuja had met with Kohlenberger, then chief of staff for the Office of Science and Technology. Eight days later, Falcone and his wife Lisa each gave $30,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the maximum allowed.

On Wednesday, Falcone told iWatch News by email that he made the 2009 contribution after "an approach" by New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, adding that the donation had "absolutely nothing to do with LightSquared." Schumer's office did not return a call seeking comment.

LightSquared's representatives weren't shy about mentioning the firm's support for Obama as they tried to line up their meetings with the president's staff.

Kumar, a Washington lawyer representing the company, reached out to Chopra in the Sept. 23, 2010 email.

On that same day, campaign finance records show Ahuja gave $30,400 to the Democratic National Committee. On Oct. 28, 2010, he gave the same amount to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In the second exchange that same day, LightSquared attorney Goldberg wrote to Kohlenberger seeking meetings and noting that the CEO would be in Washington attending the Sept. 30 fundraiser with the president. Kohlenberger wrote back to Goldberg saying that he kept hearing "great things" about LightSquared and

 

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