Threatened by the possibility that Maine cities and towns may build their own high-speed broadband networks because they are frustrated with corporate providers, the largest provider went on the offensive last month.

Just as the legislative session was starting in January, Time Warner invited Maine lawmakers to an overnight “Winter Policy Conference” at a resort in Cape Elizabeth, where the company tried to convince legislators that government owned-broadband is a bad idea. The guests were served steak dinners and some were put up for the night in rooms that retail for $205 to $355 per night.

Maine ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in Internet speeds, which frustrates consumers and puts a damper on business.

Legislators have submitted multiple bills this session to help municipalities build high-speed broadband networks. The more people who use a municipally sponsored broadband service, the fewer customers available to Time Warner.

While lawmakers say they attended the event at the Inn by the Sea to become informed, others are not sure that such an “educational forum,” as Time Warner called it, is in the public interest.

“If we want good public policy, there’s reason for all of us to be worried,” said Gordon Weil, a utilities expert who represented the interests of ratepayers before regulators as Maine’s first public advocate. Such treatment of legislators is “obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments; it’s intended to persuade by the reception they’re given.”

The event was not the only multi-day program offered to legislators. The Maine Forest Products Council gave a two-day “Woods and Wildlife 2013 Legislative Tour,” co-sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The Maine Development Foundation and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce offer a three-day “Economic Bus Tour” at the beginning of each legislative session. The organizers of both events have paid for food, travel and lodging.

“I think this idea of meals and conversations is how Augusta functions on some level,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who attended the event in Cape Elizabeth, did not stay overnight but was provided dinner and breakfast by Time Warner.

No ethics violations were noted when Time Warner hosted a similar event at the resort in 2013. Ethics rules allow lawmakers to accept meals offered in connection with “informational” events, and simply require reporting of gifts over $300, such as hotel stays.

Attendees at the event Jan. 22-23 were presented with five sessions, ranging from an update on federal telecommunications issues to a presentation on the state rule requiring certain phone companies to provide service in remote rural areas.

How many legislators attended the conference isn’t clear.

Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, for whom Time Warner paid the cost of meals and the room, said he thought “about a dozen” legislators attended the Thursday night dinner. Dion said “30 or 35” attended the second day’s sessions.

Time Warner’s lobbying disclosure for January 2013 shows that at the 2013 Time Warner policy conference, several lawmakers brought partners or spouses.

Scott Pryzwansky, Time Warner Cable’s director of public relations for the eastern U.S., declined to answer any specific questions but replied by email: “As one of Maine’s leading employers and telecommunications companies, we designed this second biannual educational forum to help policymakers and others better understand some of the complex telecommunications issues confronting Maine and the nation.”

Attendees were given a presentation by two New York legal scholars who asserted that, contrary to what the legislators might think, government-operated networks are neither necessary nor a good public investment. They were also given a presentation by pollster Mary Anne Fitzgerald on a Time Warner-commissioned survey.

State Rep. Sarah Gideon, D- Freeport, who attended only Friday’s session, was skeptical of the survey’s section on broadband because some the questions were “leading.”

“We see lots of surveys as policymakers and we have to be smart enough to look at what questions are asked,” said Gideon.

The Cape Elizabeth event for legislators fits into a larger effort by Time Warner nationally to oppose public broadband growth.

A 2014 news story by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism organization, reported: “For more than a decade, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable Inc., and CenturyLink Inc. have spent millions of dollars to lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public Internet services that often offer faster speeds at cheaper rates.”

Since 2008, Time Warner has donated more than $240,000 to Maine politicians: $127,360 to Democrats and Democratic PACs, and $113,250 to Republicans and Republican PACs.

Gideon plans to introduce legislation this session to fund a planning process for communities that are considering building connections to high-speed broadband.

Corporations like Time Warner have the right to make their case to lawmakers, said Weil.

“I would have said, ‘Fine, if you want to meet with me, come meet on state facilities, no steak dinner.’

“If steak dinners didn’t work, they wouldn’t give them steak dinners,” Weil said.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Augusta. Email: [email protected] Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org