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BellSouth backs off offer to lawmakers

Some have ethical concerns about receiving free air time by accepting the utility's invitation to do public service promos.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 27, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - BellSouth has postponed a plan to spend half a million dollars on TV spots featuring legislators after some lawmakers objected.

The utility, which employs 27 lobbyists, offered to feature lawmakers in ads promoting phone service to low-income people.

"As a state leader, we would like to feature you as one of the initiative's spokespersons in your district," said a memo on BellSouth letterhead sent to lawmakers last week.

The ads would appear when some legislators are running for re-election, when media exposure is a valuable commodity.

Because BellSouth lobbies the Legislature and state law limits gifts legislators can accept from lobbyists, some lawmakers balked.

"We asked for an opinion. It seemed like it was something of value," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "We told our members not to do anything."

Aides to House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, concluded legislators could appear in the spots, but he expressed concerns.

"I can certainly see where it could be construed to be on the wrong side," Bense said. "I can see where it might have some problems with the smell test."

BellSouth spokeswoman Marta Casas-Celaya said the $550,000 cost would be paid with unclaimed refund checks from customers. She said the money is controlled by the Public Service Commission, not BellSouth, and the spots would feature myriad community leaders, not just legislators.

Casas-Celaya said an advertising executive hired by BellSouth sent last week's memo prematurely and created "a mountain out of a molehill."

The spokeswoman said BellSouth would seek a legal opinion from the Legislature before it moves forward with the ads.

"If they believe this is not the appropriate thing to do, then no problem," Casas-Celaya said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 27, 2005, 00:47:14]


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