CLEVELAND—After I was turned away at the door of BuzzFeed’s rooftop party outside the GOP convention in Cleveland Tuesday night (LOL! WTF? FAIL!), I hopped on the first open elevator back down to street level.* I quickly discovered, to my surprise and delight, that this elevator contained Karl Rove, the political strategist in town on behalf of Fox News. As the doors slid shut, Rove turned to a man next to him—a slick-looking, older white fellow in a suit—and launched into what appeared to be a literal elevator pitch.
“I want to seize the moment here,” said Rove, in a buttonholing manner. “Did you get the information about FirstNet?” The other fellow’s back was to me. He seemed to nod. He might have mumbled something noncommittal. “There’s a tremendous opportunity there,” Rove continued, “if you consider the possibilities.” At this point, the doors opened and the two men—along with a few other, seemingly unconnected folks—exited into the lobby.
What is the significance of this exchange? Difficult to say. But here’s some useful information:
FirstNet is America’s yet-to-launch, government-funded, theoretically fail-safe public-safety broadband network for first responders. As of June 30, a “secret evaluation team”—approved by and possibly composed in part of members of FirstNet’s board of directors—was still in the process of reviewing proposals to build out the network. The winning bidder will enter into an “unprecedented 25-year public-safety broadband deal,” but “details regarding the bidding cannot be disclosed by the government, including who is on the team evaluating the proposals and selecting the best bid.”
How Rove figures into this isn’t clear; I couldn’t find any mention of him in connection with FirstNet. I did find this story in the New York Times, however. It’s from December 2014 and is titled, “Board of Public-Safety Communications Network Is Criticized Over Conflicts”:
The board overseeing a $7 billion nationwide public-safety communications network paid ”no systematic attention to potential conflicts of interest” among its members, several of whom have financial ties to the telecommunications industry, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Commerce Department’s inspector general.
Members of the board of FirstNet, as the communications network is known, did not file timely public financial disclosure reports, the report said. The board’s contracting practices also lacked the required transparency, the report said, resulting in inadequate oversight of hiring and the payment of erroneous costs during the board’s first year in operation.
In one case, an ethics official took eight months to correct one board member’s failure to disclose a significant financial conflict of interest. […]
Telecommunications companies stand to reap billions of dollars from the construction and operation of the FirstNet system, which was established in 2012 to address the communications failures among public safety officials on Sept. 11, 2001. Six of the board’s 15 members are current or former telecommunications company executives, including the board’s current chairwoman and its founding chairman.
The whole thing sounds totally above suspicion. No boondoggle here, no sir. I’m sure Rove’s interest in FirstNet stems wholly from his civic-minded longing to create a reliable comms system for America’s first responders. What sort of “opportunity” could be more exciting than that?
*Correction, July 20, 2016: This post originally misstated the date of the BuzzFeed party. It was Tuesday night, not Wednesday night.