Advent of Warner cable brought clarity to political landscape


© 2002 MilwaukeePress.Net

Anyone wondering why campaign finance reform is such a big issue need not look beyond the 1982 political punch-out for Milwaukee’s cable franchise.

In 1982, the political extravaganza playing out around the city’s first cable contract was so intense that the police began investigating an alderman before the June 18 vote to award the franchise to Warner Amex Communications Co. of Milwaukee.

Lobbyists and big political contributors lined up with all six contenders, including contributors to the campaigns of aldermen and then-Mayor Henry Maier.

The biggest bloc of local political contributors lined up with Warner Amex’s team, and included: B.J. and Harold Sampson, big Maier supporters who developed the Red Carpet Hotel and Expo Center; garbage king William Katzman, president of Waste Management of Wisconsin; contractors Gary and Paul Grunau. Also on Warner Amex’s program were registered lobbyists Robert Friebert and John Finerty.

Viacom was represented by Alan Marcuvitz, a paid legal gun who claimed to have no stake in the company, and by Ben Barkin’s public relations firm, Barkin, Herman, Solochek & Paulsen, which was so prominent it worked for A.O. Smith, Briggs & Stratton, Harnischfeger, Gimbels, Wisconsin Electric, the Johnson Foundation, the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the Performing Arts Center and the United Nations.

Milwaukee Cablevision, Inc., had as its front men local lawyer Franklyn Gimbel, then on the Fire and Police Commission, along with businessmen Jeffrey and Gene Posner.

Teleprompter had 10 local investors, including Max H. Karl, head of MGIC Investment Corp.

Also in the melee were 5C’s, the Community Controlled Cable Communication Cooperative, which still needed financing; and First Cable, whose parent corporation was Wauwatosa’s RVS.

On May 13, 1982, the Common Council’s five-member Utilities and Licenses Committee split 3-2 and narrowed the field to Warner Amex, Viacom and Teleprompter. This prompted Gimbel, who wanted Milwaukee Cablevision, to tell The Milwaukee Journal he was shocked. Gimbel blamed the paper’s former columnist, Dave Begel, for making three aldermen who might have voted for the firm reluctant to do so.

Within days, the 11 aldermen who were not on the committee criticized the vote, admitting to The Journal that there had been a crush of lobbying, “even as measured against the weight of what had preceded it.”

The same 11 aldermen then asked that the entire six be reinstated for consideration, but some who signed later reneged.

During the following weeks, the battle raged as Mayor Maier cooled his heels, some speculating he would veto one or the other of the bidders because of “political or personal animosities toward partisans of one firm or the other,” The Journal reported.

There followed veiled threats that disgruntled bidders would sue over the process.

On June 16, the Common Council’s Utilities and Licenses Committee voted 3-2 to recommend that Viacom Cablevision of Milwaukee get the franchise, surprising many observers who noted the large number of politically influential local investors Warner Amex had lined up while Viacom, of New York, had no local partners.

The same day, Bernard Strachota, who served on the Citizens Cable Advisory Committee, told a group that the selection process had become “a political thing; the citizens cannot take control.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if some elected officials were interested in feathering their financial future over this thing,” Strachota said. “There are ways it can be done.”

While Viacom had garnered the three votes it needed to get past the committee, there were eight firm votes against it in the council, and intense politicking over the next 48 hours swung four more its way.

“Local political influence was the lever that moved the Common Council,” Sentinel writers Avi Lank and Joe Manning reported.

Just two days later, the Common Council ignored the recommendation of its Utilities and Licenses Committee and voted 12-3 to give the 15-year franchise to Warner Amex. Before the vote, Ald. Betty Voss walked off the Council floor, “angered and disgusted.”

Politicians showed up at Warner Amex’s victory party at Hyatt the night of the Council vote. Common Council President Robert Anderson, who back in Mayor Henry Maier's day once got so angry about a public housing issue that two police officers had to drag him out of Maier's office, was there. No telling how much influence he may have wielded for Warner Amex, but on more than one occasion he threatened to bash in the brains of a fellow alderman. He never actually did it, but once punched U.S. Rep. Jerry Kleczka, then a state senator, in the face at a party.

Also there to party with Warner Amex was Former Ald. Richard L. Spaulding who three years later was the target of a separate FBI inquiry. The FBI said Spaulding took $11,800 for zoning favors from a lawyer who was working undercover for the FBI. Authorities discovered the money in the ceiling tiles of his basement, and Spaulding served part of a two-year prison term.

The next week, Ald. Kevin O’Connor denied receiving an $1,800 campaign contribution from Warner, but he did acknowledge he got “about a grand a piece” from Warner’s registered lobbyists Robert Friebert and John Finerty.

Furthermore, The Sentinel reported that Warner lobbyists had given $21,895 to aldermanic and mayoral campaigns between 1976 and 1982, compared with $3,950 contributed by Viacom. More than one-third of Warner’s contributions were in the six months prior to the franchise vote.

Ald. Roy B. Naybors, chairman of the Common Council’s Utilities and Licenses Committee, said, “I had no campaign contributions from the cable companies during the franchising process.”

“Prior to franchising, there were persons who have made contributions to my campaign, but they weren’t lobbyists at the time.”

Ald. James Kondziella, who received contributions totaling $1,525 from Warner lobbyists, said: “Just because someone donates to your campaign doesn’t mean you’re married to them.”

Finally, Mayor Maier, who said little during the battle, was collecting from both Warner ($3,197) and Viacom ($1,600) between January and June 1982.

By October, the FBI confirmed it was investigating three aldermen and Circuit Judge Robert W. Landry held conferences in “absolute secrecy” to determine whether there was evidence to warrant a John Doe investigation that might lead to a criminal indictment in the TV franchising process, according to press clippings from the time.

After meeting with Dist. Atty. E. Michael McCann, Landry announced on Oct. 28, 1982, that he “had concluded there was no evidence that a crime had been committed.”

Landry said Milwaukee’s cable selection process was “deplorable,” and said it “violated the fundamental principles of good government and invited conflicts of interest and favoritism.”