Tech giant Google has acknowledged what City Hall insiders have known for months: Political-consultant-turned-lobbyist Mark Wiener is working for them on their deal to bring high-speed Google Fiber to Portland.
Google acknowledged Wiener's work on its behalf in new documents filed April 15 with Portland's auditor, who oversees the city's regulations on lobbyists.
The disclosure is significant for several reasons. As recently as April 13, Google representatives declined to confirm to WW that Wiener engaged in reportable lobbying activity for the company.
That added a layer of secrecy to Google's behind-the-scenes work to bring super-fast Internet to Portland.
As a political consultant to three of five members of the city council—Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Steve Novick—Wiener enjoys far more influence than a typical lobbyist. (Novick isn't paying Wiener in his current bid for re-election; he employs a different consultant now.)
That's why Wiener's lobbying work in 2014 and 2015 on behalf of Uber—the ride-sharing giant that initially met a chilly reception at City Hall—raised so many eyebrows. That kind of dual role is also what inspired Commissioner Nick Fish last month to successfully push new regulations for reporting the activity of political consultants at City Hall.
The disclosure also comes as City Hall debates stronger lobbying restrictions amid fierce opposition from Hales and Saltzman, who especially don't like Auditor Mary Hull Caballero's proposal to broaden Portland's lobbying ban on certain ex-employees.
Google reported very little else in its most recent quarterly disclosure. That doesn't mean it's sitting on its hands.
Google Fiber lobbying
In March, Google submitted a dry, two-page land use review application for a "proposed pre-manufactured communication fiber hut" in the Hillsdale neighborhood, as The Oregonian first reported. It's one of seven sites Google says it needs to offer Portland an internet service that's 100 times faster than typical connections.
Since 2014, Google and the city of Portland have been negotiating mostly outside the public eye, shielded first by a non-disclosure agreement and then by lobbying rules that haven't been updated since 2007.
Besides Google's April 15 disclosure, the only other mention of Wiener's work regarding Google that WW has found in the public record appears in the calendars of top employees for Hales and Saltzman, who met with Google representatives and Wiener on Dec. 12, 2013. (Google does not list Wiener as one of its lobbyists then, and Wiener has not responded to multiple request from WW asking him who he was working for—Google or his political clients at City Hall.)
Three months later, Google announced it was considering Portland as a site for Google Fiber.
Portland requires special interest groups to report their lobbying at City Hall if they engage in more than eight hours of lobbying per calendar quarter. In the past two years, Google has reported its activity only once—in the first quarter of 2014.
Records from Portland's Office for Community Technology, the city agency leading the effort to bring Google Fiber to Portland, show city employees are in regular contact with two registered Google lobbyists, Chris Taylor and Daniel Pickens-Jones. But that activity—the meetings, the phone calls, the site visits—isn't reportable under the city's lobbying regulations because the lobbyists are not speaking directly with elected officials, the at-will employees of elected officials or bureau directors. (The Office for Community Technology is not considered a city bureau.)
Mary Beth Henry, the director of Portland's Office for Community Technology, says the conversations have concerned technical issues such as where to locate potential fiber huts—not efforts to extract favorable conditions for Google. Taylor, as it happens, lives across the street from Wiener, in Hales' Eastmoreland neighborhood.
Three dozen emails the city released to WW under a public records request mostly confirm her characterization.
However, the city allowed Google to review the documents before they were released, and many portions of the emails are redacted. It did so under the terms of the city's June 2014 franchise agreement with Google, which also gave the company the right to potentially use city streets for its fiber network.
New lobbying rules
Caballero, the city's auditor, is trying to expand the lobbying disclosure rules to promote transparency. The new rules wouldn't capture lobbyists' work with city staff, however.
But they would require lobbying entities who spend eight or more hours or at least $1,000 on lobbying activity to report their contacts with elected leaders, bureau directors and the at-will staff of elected leaders (as well as members of certain high-profile city commissions). That change would capture more of Google's work at the city, potentially triggering the reporting of any contact Wiener has with his political clients about Google.
It's unclear when or if Caballero's proposal will return to the City Council, given the opposition from Hales and Saltzman to key components.
Hales, who has eight months left in office, declared he was puzzled by the reforms, claiming Portland government was clean compared to the places he visited as a private streetcar consultant. "I can tell you about real government corruption," he told colleagues. "And it ain't here. It's not in Oregon and it's not in Portland."
In any case, city officials are pleased with the work Google is doing to bring its network to Portland. The results of its work, they say, will break Comcast's grip on Portland's internet market, while providing a service that could transform how people and businesses use the technology.
"The winner is going to be the Portland consumer," says Brendan Finn, chief of staff to Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman. "It gives them choices, and it forces the other providers to keep pace."