Alex Constantine - May 17, 2022
AT&T has bankrolled politicians behind anti-abortion 'trigger laws' in 13 states. Other telecom and media giants aren't far behind.
Tanya Dua and Angela Wang
Business insider, May 13, 2022
Last August, the telecom giant AT&T celebrated Women's Equality Day, commemorating the certification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
Stacey Marx, AT&T's senior vice president of human resources, recalled how she delayed the decision to have children because she saw so few examples of women around her who successfully juggled career and family.
"That's one of the reasons it took me so long to start my own family," she is quoted saying in a company blog post. "Today, I'm surrounded by women who are kicking butt with successful careers, strong relationships and happy families."
Marx's remarks didn't specifically address contraception or abortion. But they did celebrate the freedom of working women to decide when to start a family. And a leaked Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade suggests that freedom may soon be dramatically curtailed across the country — including in AT&T's home state of Texas.
If the court rules as expected, 13 states with so-called trigger laws will automatically criminalize abortion. And AT&T has played an outsized role in backing the lawmakers who put these laws in place, an investigation by Insider found. It dominates a roster of big-name tech, media, and telecom corporations that have for years bankrolled the sponsors of state-level movements to criminalize abortion.
Insider used state and federal election filings compiled by FollowTheMoney.org to examine political donations to the 380 state lawmakers who sponsored or cosponsored these bills and the 13 governors who signed them. The analysis covered donations for the election cycle immediately prior to the passage of each law as well as all subsequent cycles.
The analysis found that AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast, Verizon, Cox Communications, Time Warner (now Warner Bros. Discovery), Microsoft, Facebook, Google, T-Mobile, and Sprint (now part of T-Mobile) have collectively contributed more than $2 million to such movements.
AT&T is the single largest publicly traded company behind these trigger laws across sectors, having contributed more than $1 million to trigger-bill sponsors and governors across 13 states.
Some of these companies have claimed to champion women's rights and equality and enlisted celebrities who are outspoken about women's issues such as Kate McKinnon to tout their messages. (A rep for McKinnon, who has appeared in Verizon ads, did not respond to requests for comment.)
On International Women's Day, for example, Google tweeted that it's "working to help women prioritize their needs by putting a premium on safety and health, creating equitable opportunities and celebrating their accomplishments." Around the same time, Verizon said that "women's equality has come a long way, but there's work to be done," and it committed to "breaking down bias and stereotypes while continuing progress on women's equality and gender equality."
Yet their donations have provided substantial backing to anti-abortion state legislators and governors.
Most companies declined Insider's request for comment on their political donations. But AT&T and T-Mobile both told Insider that their political donations are bipartisan in nature and that they are focused on policies and regulations relevant to their businesses.
AT&T stands out with large-scale donations to anti-abortion lawmakers
Less than half of AT&T's contributions went to governors who signed these abortion bans into law. AT&T sent the rest, nearly $536,000, to bill sponsors in 12 states — a significant amount in what typically tend to be small-dollar races. By contrast, Verizon, its leading competitor, gave to bill sponsors in five states; Sprint gave to sponsors in three states, and T-Mobile in two.
For comparison, the nonprofit Texas Alliance for Life made the largest donations to bill sponsors of any single anti-abortion organization, totaling about $22,000. The total contribution to bill sponsors from all single-issue anti-abortion groups was just under $49,000.
It's not the first time AT&T has been singled out for its outsized political donations to anti-abortion players. A 2019 report by the abortion-rights advocacy group Equity Forward listed it among several large companies that had donated thousands of dollars to the Republican State Leadership Committee and other committees and lawmakers who pushed for abortion bans.
Just last week, the journalist Judd Legum called out companies including AT&T in his newsletter, Popular Information, for having given millions of dollars to the RSLC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the Republican Governors Association since 2016.
Legum's analysis found that AT&T had donated nearly $1.5 million to political committees that oppose abortion rights. The company was also one of the top donors to the sponsors of Texas' recent six-week abortion ban, SB 8.
These contributions stand in sharp contrast to the public stances AT&T has taken on gender equality and women's empowerment. The company counts the feminist icons Serena Williams and Rosario Dawson among its paid spokeswomen. It's also a partner of organizations dedicated to empowering girls, such as Girls Who Code, Girl Scouts of the USA, and Girls Inc. Reps for Williams and Dawson did not respond to Insider's requests for comment.
AT&T also prides itself on having women in senior leadership and has signed on to the United Nations' Women's Empowerment Principles. It has been recognized as a leader in the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index for making strides toward gender equality in the workplace. And it ranked 18th on a list from the gender-equity-data firm Equileap assessing 100 companies on workplace equality.
In AT&T's 2020 report on diversity, equity, and inclusion, CEO John Stankey called "gender equity and the empowerment of women" one of AT&T's "core values." And with more than 20,000 members, Women of AT&T National boasts the most members among the company's various employee-resource groups.
These incongruities have come under the watchful eye of activist shareholders who have put their weight behind proposals tied to social issues in recent years.
One group, the nonprofit organization As You Sow, is urging AT&T to assess whether its political expenditures align with its publicly stated values and policies. The proposal specifically notes that AT&T has said it's committed to gender equality but has contributed to politicians and political organizations working to erode access to reproductive healthcare.
"AT&T's track record is particularly concerning, and its level of funding is relatively unprecedented," Meredith Benton, the principal and founder of Whistle Stop Capital, an ESG-focused consultancy, told Insider. "Consumers are more sophisticated in their ability to parse out corporate messaging, so it's much harder for companies to just talk the talk these days."
AT&T told Insider that its PACs contribute to both parties and are focused on policies and regulations tied tonetworks and to hiring, developing, and retaining a skilled workforce with competitive wages and benefits.
"We have never advocated for laws affecting abortion rights, and our employee PACs have never based contribution decisions on a legislator's position on abortion," Kim Hart Johnson, a company spokeswoman, told Insider. "It is inaccurate to assert that a contribution to an elected official equates to support of the entirety of their policy positions."
Johnson added that AT&T's PACs have "contributed more to co-sponsors and governors who voted to enact laws protecting abortion access in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, than to those who voted to enact laws restricting abortion access if Roe v. Wade is overturned, according to your methodology."
But AT&T and other companies cannot absolve themselves of responsibility, said Michelle Kuppersmith, the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, an ethics-focused nonprofit organization.
"When AT&T gives money to a politician who then signs a trigger law, maybe AT&T did not intend for that to happen," she told Insider. "But that politician is only able to perpetuate their power because of AT&T and other corporations' support."
Kuppersmith said that company donations can easily make or break local elections.
"When it comes to state legislative elections, the budgets are not often big," she said. "So what might seem like a small donation can have an outsized influence."
Big names in telecom, media, and tech bankrolled supporters of abortion bans
The broadband provider Charter Communications and Comcast, a media and broadband company, also feature among the 25 companies that contributed the most to the state lawmakers behind abortion trigger laws, Insider's analysis found. Charter, Spectrum's parent company, contributed $335,000 to sponsors and governors across six states, while Comcast gave $264,000 to sponsors and governors across eight states. Time Warner gave more than $90,000 to sponsors and governors across three states.
Among AT&T's telecom peers, Verizon, which also has a robust DEI program, gave far less: just around $102,000 to sponsors and governors in five states. T-Mobile and Sprint, which T-Mobile acquired, together gave around $70,000 to sponsors and governors in multiple states.
Big tech companies including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft also made contributions, though theirs were small compared with other sectors. While Microsoft funneled $92,500 to sponsors and governors in seven states, Facebook and Google did not donate in any state legislative race; they donated only to the former Louisiana state legislator Steve Scalise once he ran for US Congress, not long after sponsoring the bill that became Louisiana's trigger law.
All these companies except T-Mobile declined to comment.
"Our political donations have always been bipartisan and solely focused on supporting issues and topics relevant to our business and industry," T-Mobile told Insider.
Microsoft announced this week that it would pay travel costs for its employees seeking an abortion.
The trigger laws date back to 2005, and AT&T only recently spun off its entertainment division, WarnerMedia, and merged it with Discovery. Still, Warner Bros. Discovery's contributions made back when it was Time Warner, as well as the political contributions made by Comcast, raise concerns for media critics.
"If you are a conglomerate that owns a news outlet and you're making political contributions, there is inherently a conflict there," Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, told Insider. "There is a disconnect between where they're putting their political muscle and what they're saying publicly is their mission as a company."