Amazon buys Washington

amazonAmazon.com Inc. (AMZN), whose founder Jeff Bezos is purchasing the Washington Post (WPO), ranks among the biggest spenders among high-technology companies seeking to influence the work of the federal government.

Former U.S. Senators Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, and John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, are among those working for Seattle-based Amazon, which spent $1.7 million on lobbying from January through June, ninth highest among high-tech companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks lobbying.

The company weighed in on issues with Congress, the Commerce Department and the Federal Trade Commission on matters such as Internet sales taxes and privacy, patent laws, cybersecurity and online wine sales, Senate filings show.

“They have a huge number of issues before the federal government and now he’s bought the hometown paper for covering those politicians,” said Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group. “There’s always a concern you’re going to have a conflict when you have wealthy publisher. Given all of Amazon’s issues, it’s hard to see where Bezos won’t have a conflict.”

Ethics specialist Bob Steele agrees.

“There are certainly competing loyalties,” said Steele, director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “If he handles it very well, it’s possible to manage those competing loyalties, but it’s also possible for competing loyalties to turn into conflicts of interest that could erode the integrity of his journalistic obligations.”

Like other high-tech companies, Amazon has increased its lobbying spending. The company’s 2013 totals for the first six months of the year are 31 percent higher than the $1.3 million spent during the same period a year earlier. In 2000, when the company first reported it was lobbying the federal government, it spent $246,000 during the first six months.

Amazon’s team of lobbyists also includes former Assistant Treasury Secretary Jonathan Talisman, who served in the Clinton administration; Elizabeth Frazee, former aide to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican; and Holly Fechner, former counsel to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, is purchasing the Post on his own, paying $250 million to the Washington Post Co., for a newspaper which has been held by the family of Post CEO Donald Graham since 1933.

Bezos must consider the reputation of the Post going forward as he acquires a newspaper at the heart of reporting on and editorializing about Washington’s issues. Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based journalism training organization, says Bezos would undercut the value of his purchase if he used the Post to advocate for his business interests.

“He will have to create — and I have no doubt that he will — a standard of independence and transparency in his newsroom,” McBride said. “It doesn’t make any business sense for it to become a mouthpiece. It makes business sense to do the right thing.” – Bloomberg