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Trump Pardons Junk Bond King Michael Milken, Financier of America’s Cable Monopoly

Phillip Dampier February 19, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Milken in the 1980s (Image: The Gentleman’s Journal)

President Donald Trump granted clemency on Tuesday to Michael Milken, the so-called “junk bond king” who violated scores of securities and insider trading laws and was instrumental in helping finance the creation of America’s cable monopoly.

Milken used his position at the now-defunct Drexel Burnham Lambert to run its “high-yield bond unit.” More commonly known as “junk bonds,” these high-risk securities are typically issued by companies to finance mergers and acquisitions, often to strip assets or put competing companies out of business.

As a result, a new era of media and telecommunications tycoons emerged. Many successfully gained control of other companies and consolidated them into business empires, significantly reducing or eliminating serious competitors. Most of those companies still hold dominant positions today or have since merged with even larger companies. President Trump credited Milken for helping “create entire industries, such as wireless communications and cable television.”

By the late 1980s, Milken had advised scores of firms to rely on leveraged junk bond financing of corporate takeovers, a practice that endures to this day. Milken financed Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions to turn what was once a small newspaper chain into News Corp., which today still dominates in broadcasting, cable news channels like Fox News, and newspapers including the Wall Street Journal.

Milken also helped arrange financing for Craig McCaw, an early pioneer in cellular communications that leveraged cellular licenses McCaw borrowed heavily to obtain into one of the country’s first major wireless companies. But McCaw found bigger riches buying and selling mobile companies, first acquiring MCI’s cellular division in 1986 and selling his family’s cable operations to what would later become Comcast. By 1990, McCaw was the country’s highest paid CEO. Four years later, he sold McCaw Cellular to AT&T for $11.5 billion. AT&T sold that wireless company to Cingular in 2004 and then acquired Cingular itself some years later. McCaw would later plow $1.1 billion of family and borrowed money to take control of Nextel in 1995, only to sell it 11 years later to Sprint for $6.5 billion.

Malone

The country’s first cable giant, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) would not have been possible without Milken’s junk bond financing scheme. Cable tycoon John Malone acquired hundreds of regional cable operators to create a cable empire that was often loathed by subscribers. TCI leveraged its position as a de facto monopoly, scaring off competitors, raising prices, and often delivering horrendous service. Vice President Al Gore would later characterize the Milken-financed emerging cable industry as a “cable Cosa Nostra,” and Malone himself as “Darth Vader.”

Time Warner’s cable division was also created as a result of a wave of consolidation that snapped up countless locally owned cable operators and smaller operators run by various media companies. Ted Turner also depended on Milken’s junk bond financing to create Turner Broadcasting, turning what was originally a single UHF independent TV station in Atlanta, Ga., into a superstation seen around the country and the launch of Cable News Network, better known as CNN.

Sometimes Milken’s clients benefited from his advice, sometimes they became targets themselves. Years after Turner Broadcasting was a major powerhouse in the cable programming business, Time Warner relied on a similar acquisition strategy to acquire Turner Broadcasting itself. Milken reportedly received a $50 million bonus for “advising” on the transaction, despite being in jail at the time. Years later, TBS founder Ted Turner would regret the buyout, which took CNN and TNT out of his hands.

Turner

Other household names from the past and present that expanded as a result of Milken’s financial advice include Viacom (now a part of CBS), MCI (embroiled in one of the country’s largest fraud schemes before being quietly sold off to Verizon), Telemundo (now effectively owned by Comcast), and Metromedia (which sold its network of popular independent TV stations to News Corp., which rechristened them FOX television network affiliates).

Milken quickly attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which took years to build a case against the Wall Street star. It took arbitrageur Ivan Boesky to help bring Milken down after pleading guilty to securities fraud and insider trading. He ‘ratted out’ Milken, which prompted a major investigation of him and the investment firm he worked for.

Milken was eventually indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 and through a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to securities and reporting violations, which won him a reduced sentence. He was supposed to serve 10 years in jail, but was released after just 22 months for good behavior. He was also fined $600 million (later apparently reduced to $200 million), a fraction of his reported net worth of nearly $4 billion. Although Milken was permanently barred from the securities industry, he still received compensation from certain transactions after that ban, which raised eyebrows.

Critics claim Milken’s legacy emboldened Wall Street to engage in riskier behavior and to innovate new leveraging schemes. Some claim that eventually helped create the conditions leading to the 2008 Great Recession.

The president offered nothing but praise for Milken in his pardoning statement and claimed prosecutors were overzealous in pursuing Milken. The president received an earful of advice in favor of a presidential pardon from his Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who is a close person friend of Milken and has flown on his private plane. Many Trump allies, including conservative powerhouse donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and property developer Richard LeFrak also lobbied the president on Milken’s behalf. So did the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who ironically helped prosecute Milken in the 1980s. Some benefactors of Milken’s financial advice were also in favor of a pardon, including Rupert Murdoch.

Milken’s fans have been persistently seeking pardon relief for years. They failed to win a presidential pardon from former president Bill Clinton in 2001, after a joint letter strenuously objecting to the idea was sent from the SEC and U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York. The letter said pardoning Milken would “send the wrong message to Wall Street.”

New York Governor’s Boast About Near-100% Broadband Coverage Backfires

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasted in 2015 that anyone who wanted broadband service in the state would have access to it, he could not have realized that claim would come back to haunt him five years later.

New York’s Broadband for All program claimed to be the “largest and most ambitious state broadband investment in the nation,” with $500 million set aside “to achieve statewide broadband access by 2018,” with “99.9% of New Yorkers” getting access to broadband service.

In 2020, that goal remains elusive, with over 80,000 New Yorkers relegated to heavily data-capped satellite internet access and potentially tens of thousands more left behind by erroneous broadband availability maps that could leave many with no access at all. Now it appears the federal government will not be coming to the rescue, potentially stranding some rural residents as a permanent, unconnected underclass.

The Republican-majority at the Federal Communications Commission has decided to take the Democratic governor at his word and exclude additional rural broadband funding for New York State. The FCC’s recently approved Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is the most ambitious rural broadband funding initiative to date, with a budget of $20.4 billion. As it stands, not a penny of those funds will ever be paid to support additional broadband projects in the Empire State.

“Back in 2016, the governor of New York represented to this agency that allocating the full $170 million in Connect America Fund II support to the state broadband program would allow full broadband buildout throughout the Empire State, when combined with the state’s own funding,” said FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly.

That $170 million was originally designated for Verizon to spend in upstate and western New York in areas without high-speed broadband. When Verizon declined to accept the funding, the rules for the program required the money to be made available for other qualified projects in other states, or left forfeit, unspent. An appeal from New York’s Senate delegation to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to award that $170 million to New York’s Broadband for All program was successful, allowing other phone, cable, and wireless providers to construct new rural broadband projects around the state. That decision was met with criticism, especially by the Wireless Industry Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents the interests of mostly rural, fixed wireless providers around the country.

O’Rielly

“After robust opportunity for public input, last year the FCC adopted a CAF-II framework that was truly technology-neutral and designed to harness the power of competition to deliver the most broadband to the most Americans, at the lowest overall price,” said Steve Coran, counsel for WISPA, in a statement. “Unfortunately, today’s action appears to deviate from this approach by providing disproportionate support to one state at the expense of others, which will now be competing for even less federal support.”

That criticism was partially echoed by Commissioner O’Rielly, who appreciated the dilemma of rural New Yorkers without access to high speed internet, but felt the FCC was showing favoritism to New York, which he worried was getting a disproportionate share of federal funding.

“These are federal [Universal Service Fund] dollars taken from ratepayers nationwide. They are not New York State funds, and we have the burden of deciding how best to allocate these scarce dollars, as well as the right to demand that they be spent wisely,” O’Rielly said. “At the same time, I am concerned that the funding will not be used as efficiently as possible. It should not be lost on everyone that New York is one of the states that diverts 9-1-1 fees collected to other non-related purposes, as is noted in the Commission’s recent report on the subject. We should have received assurances that New York would cease this disgraceful practice.”

O’Rielly added that offering even more generous funding in New York could lead to overpaying providers to service rural New York communities at the expense of other, cheaper rural broadband projects in other states.

Recently O’Rielly claimed that allowing New York to receive funding under the new RDOF program would almost guarantee dollars would be spent on duplicative, overlapping broadband projects, noting that Gov. Cuomo already considers New York almost entirely served by high speed providers. In fact, he claimed any additional funding sent to New York would be “beyond foolish and incredibly wasteful” and would undermine the rural broadband program’s objective to avoid funding projects in areas already served by an existing provider.

In other words, since Gov. Cuomo has claimed that virtually the entire state is now served with high speed internet access, O’Reilly believes there is no reason to award any further money to the state.

Except the claim that ‘nearly the entire state already has broadband access’ is untrue, and O’Rielly’s arguments against sending any additional money to New York seem more political than rational.

The FCC’s broadband availability map shows significant portions of New York in yellow, which designates no provider delivering the FCC’s minimum of 25/3 Mbps broadband service.

First, the FCC’s own flawed broadband availability maps, criticized for over counting the number of Americans with access to broadband, still shows large sections of upstate and western New York unserved by any suitable provider. Parts of western New York between Buffalo and Rochester, significant portions of the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, and North Country are all still without access. An even larger portion of upstate New York has either no access or very slow access through DSL. The number of residents without service is significant. The FCC uses census blocks to measure broadband availability, but this methodology is flawed because if even one home within that block has broadband while dozens of others do not, the FCC still counts every home as served. This has angered many New Yorkers stuck without service while a local cable or phone company offers high-speed internet access to neighbors just up the road. Many of these rural residents are not even designated to receive satellite service, Broadband for All’s last catchall option for areas where no wired provider bid to provide service.

Second, long-standing rules in broadband funding programs already deny funding to areas where another suitable provider already offers service. So it would be impossible for RDOF to award “wasted” funding to projects where service already exists.

While Gov. Cuomo’s boastful claims about broadband availability opened the door for discriminatory rules against the state, the FCC itself wrote the rules, and it appears the goal was one part payback for securing earlier broadband funding over the objections of Commission O’Reilly, and one part sticking it to a state that has given the Trump Administration plenty of heartburn since the president took office.

West Virginia’s Public Service Commission Documents Over 4,000 Complaints About Frontier Communications

Today we present a roundup of videos from diverse news outlets around the country documenting ongoing, serious lapses in service at Frontier Communications.

MetroNews talks with West Virginia Public Service Commission chair Charlotte Lane about the thousands of service complaints on file regarding Frontier Communications. (4:39)

Special Investigation Reveals Scores of Frontier Customers in Wisconsin Enduring 911 Outages

At least “dozens of people” in Wisconsin found they could not reach 911 because of Frontier’s repeated network failures. WSAW in Wausau reports in a special investigation that Frontier’s ongoing problems may be putting the elderly at risk. (6:02)

In this follow-up story, WSAW reports that local officials in Marathon County, Wis. need a long-term solution to Frontier’s growing service problems that often leave local customers without service “for weeks.” (1:25)

Rural California Communities Suffer With Extended Frontier Service Outages

KRCR-TV in Redding, Calif., covers the increasing number of phone and internet failures afflicting area Frontier customers, leaving many in cell signal-challenged areas with no way to reach friends, family, or 911. (2:14)

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