Washington, D.C. — Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack receives as much as $1 million a year in royalties and interest from her late husband Sonny Bono’s music and television work. At the same time, she introduces and supports legislation that could benefit those entertainment industries—and the artists and their families who rely on royalties for income.
Since Bono Mack replaced Sonny Bono, half of the 1960s and 70s singing sensation Sonny and Cher, in a special election in 1998 for Riverside County’s 45th district, the Republican has received about $376,800 from entertainment companies—many of which could benefit from her legislation.
In her recent, successful campaign against Democrat Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, Bono Mack raised about $125,000 from entertainment companies, including about $69,250 from executives and employees and the rest from their Political Action Committees.
Although the contributions are a fraction of both the $8.9 million she’s raised since 1998 and the $2.2 million for the recent election, Bono Mack is the second top recipient in the House of donations from the movie, music and television industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that analyzes federal campaign finance data.
Outside of legislative efforts, Bono Mack is founding co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Intellectual Property Promotion and Piracy Prevention, which “supports initiatives to protect intellectual property and copyrighted works” and works “to prevent internet piracy,” among other things.
Bono Mack also sits on the Committee on Energy and Commerce and its Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. Her work there has involved issues in addition to copyright and piracy. For instance, she has supported bills to ensure prescription drug benefits for seniors, as well as passing clean energy legislation.
That Bono Mack is involved in legislating the entertainment industry, one she knows well and personally benefits from, is not necessarily a surprise or unusual. Some see it as logical and positive.
“I think there is an enormous advantage to having legislators who are actual creators, or the beneficiaries of creators, who understand how it is that the copyright system affects not just copyright industries but also individual artists,” said Thomas D. Sydnor, II, a leading researcher on inadvertent file sharing and former counsel to chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who also receives royalties as a songwriter.
“It was very helpful that my boss, Chairman Hatch, actually understood,” he said. “It (royalties checks) arrived in the mail sometimes—that perspective is actually very useful.”
Some of Bono Mack’s recent legislation involves illegal sharing of files on the Internet, which industry leaders have said is damaging songwriters and their families who “pay their rent, medical bills and children’s’ educational expenses with royalty income.”
Warner Music Group—which acquired the label on which Sonny Bono was signed—has warned shareholders that this type of peer-to-peer software is a financial threat to the company.
Bono Mack introduced the bills in 2008 and 2009 to help regulate file-sharing programs. They also could give the Federal Trade Commission more enforcement ability against companies that distribute peer-to-peer software, as well as attempt to curtail a practice, in which experts say users are encouraged share all of the files on their computers rather than just songs and videos.
Bono Mack’s spokeswoman, Anjulen Anderson, said “This is not a conflict of interest for the Congresswoman.” She said “copyrights are clearly protected by the US Constitution” and the bill “does not prohibit legal or illegal downloading of files.”
Anderson said the congresswoman introduced the bills in response to incidents in which people, including government employees and contractors, inadvertently shared sensitive files, such as secret government information and social security numbers.
Anderson acknowledged that copyright protection “was a potential peripheral positive to the legislation.” But she said, “The congresswoman’s positions are very straightforward … The purpose of her introducing this legislation was to protect consumers and protect national threats.”
Bono Mack has made clear her dedication to copyright protection.
“I am passionate about the preservation and protection of intellectual property, especially digital intellectual property. As we discuss Internet policy matters, protecting intellectual property is one of my highest priorities,” she said as keynote speaker on the 4th Annual State of the Net Conference in 2008.
The fact that her legislation also could benefit entertainment companies is evidenced by how at least 10 firms in those industries spent money to lobby on it.
Bono Mack has reported royalties from at least four of the music, movie and television companies and groups that lobbied on one or both of the bills, including Warner Music, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Recording Industry Association of America and MCA Inc., which later became a part of Vivendi.
But Bono Mack’s financial disclosures don’t necessarily show all of the companies paying her royalties. In 1998, her first year in Congress, Bono Mack reported she and Sonny received between $100,001 to $1 million from Warner/Chappell Music and between $5,001 to $15,000 from MCA Inc., both of which lobbied on her file-sharing bill. She also has reported much smaller royalties from Sony Music Entertainment and the RIAA, which also lobbied on her bill.
Since then, however, she has listed most royalty income from a “Bono Collection Trust.” Her office refused to say what companies pay into that trust.
Anderson said the Ethics Committee reviews Bono Mack’s disclosures, and they “comply fully with the House rules and legal requirements.”
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, said “it’s pretty clear there is a conflict” between her legislative and personal interests, but the fact that members from both political parties supported the peer-to-peer bill suggests it was important to the public in general.
“Sometimes the people who know most about a particular issue are the most conflicted,” he said.
Companies that lobbied on her bill also are among her campaign contributors. Bono Mack has received at least $143,990 since 2007, the year before she introduced the bill, from music, movie, television, Internet and media companies, subsidiaries and groups, as well as their lobbyists.
Anderson said the firms did not lobby “the personal office of congresswoman” and “only communicated their suggestions with Committee staff.”
Still, some of Bono Mack’s campaign contributions from those who lobbied came in within hours of her sponsoring the legislation—though not always from those with copyright agendas. Experts said other contributors wanted to narrow language in the bill so it wouldn’t affect Internet providers such as AT&T, which has been Bono Mack’s top campaign contributor in her congressional career. As first drafted, experts said, the bill was so broad it could have considered even e-mail programs peer-to-peer file sharing.
For instance, the day before she sponsored the first peer-to-peer bill in September 2008, two of the groups that reported lobbying on it gave money: Mitch Glazier, lobbyist for the Recording Industry Association of America, gave her $1,000, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association gave her $5,000.
Last year, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association—which experts said wanted to narrow language in the bill —gave her $2,500 more the same day she sponsored the bill, which passed the House with 36 cosponsors.
The Recording Industry Association of America has honored Bono Mack (and other members of Congress) at the group’s “GRAMMY” on the Hill” parties, which she earned “for her work in pursuing strong copyright protection in Congress.” The RIAA also contributed $1,500 to her recent campaign and $1,000 in her last. Bono Mack has reported receiving relatively small royalties from the RIAA in the hundreds of dollars.
Barton Herbison, executive director of the National Songwriters Association, said Bono Mack is “a champion of copyrights.”
“Whatever she is doing is right…there is not a political motive for that,” he said. “It’s not about any royalties Sonny ever earned; it’s about the hundreds of young potential Sonnys that will never get their chance.”
Benjamin Bishin, an associate professor of political science and expert in congressional elections and the University of California, Riverside, said this is politics as usual.
“Unfortunately I just think it’s a sign of the time that politicians can so brazenly do things that line their own pockets,” he said. “And instead of being embarrassed by it they openly tout it as if it’s something to be proud of.”
In December 2007, Bono Mack co-sponsored a bill that would strengthen penalties for violating intellectual properties laws. Most of the same music, movie and television companies lobbied on this bill, too, including at least four from which she has reported receiving royalties.
That bill easily passed the House, and a similar bill in the Senate became law in September 2008.
Broadcast Music Inc., from which Bono Mack reported receiving between $100,001 to $1 million in her initial, itemized disclosure, lobbied on the bill and gave her $2,300 in February 2009, more than twice what it gave any other member of Congress.
Melanie Sloan, an expert in congressional ethics and executive director of the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was more circumspect.
She said supporting legislation that could benefit a lawmaker’s personal finances can undermine the public’s faith because there is no way to really know if their intentions are personal or for the good of their constituents.
“You just can’t be sure,” she said. “It’s probably both.”
View Bono Mack’s financial disclosure forms here:
The Press-Enterprise ran a version of this story on Nov. 15, 2010 in its print edition and online This story ran in the North County Times on Nov. 9, 2010 and on its website.
We'll let you know when big things happen.