News & Politics

Comcast Kept Lists of VIP Customers but Says They Didn’t Get Special Treatment

A 2005 court filing says the company kept track of customers like elected officials and corporate bigwigs.

Photograph by Flickr user Mike Mozart.

A suburban Washington Comcast office maintained detailed lists of influential customers, including local government officials, business leaders, and a congressional field office, according to a 2005 lawsuit and a person familiar with the case.

The legal documents show that–as of 2005–Comcast Cablevision of Potomac kept “highly sensitive and confidential lists of subscribers, including targeted lists of hundreds of the best (highest revenue producing), highest profile, or most satisfied customers, known as ‘Platinum,’ ‘VIP’ or ‘Happy Customer’ lists.”

A footnote in Comcast’s legal filings defined these “VIP” subscribers as “customers who may be an elected official, public figure, or other person of importance.”

A person familiar with the case says that the “VIP” lists consisted entirely of customers in Montgomery County, Md.; the lists included local mayors, city council members, the heads of major corporations, and leaders of civic organizations. No members of Congress appeared on these lists, according to the person familiar with the case, although one congressional field office did.

A Comcast spokesperson declined to explain why such “VIP” lists were compiled or whether the company still maintains such lists. “Comcast does not and has not offered special service, perks or free upgrades to lawmakers or public officials,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Washingtonian.

Philadelphia-based Comcast–the nation’s largest cable operator–is currently seeking regulatory approval for its blockbuster, $45-billion merger with America’s second biggest cable company, Time Warner Cable. If approved, the deal would hand Comcast control of more than a third of the nation’s broadband internet coverage. Comcast has unleashed an influence-peddling blitz to ensure the deal goes through. According to the most recent data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Comcast spent nearly $12 million dollars on lobbying in 2014, the sixth most of any company in America.

Washingtonian reported in December that Comcast’s government-affairs team toted “We’ll make it right” cards with “priority assistance” codes that fast-tracked help for congressional staffers, journalists, and other influential Washingtonians who complained about their service.

Tom Karinshak, Comcast’s senior vice president for customer experience, responded to the story on the company’s website. He said Comcast makes the cards available to each of its 80,000 employees, who are then free to hand them out to any customer who complains of cable or internet problems. “The card is not used to target specific customers or parts of the country,” Karinshak wrote.

Responding to questions about the “VIP” customer lists, the Comcast spokesperson said in the statement the company “does not and has not operated a dedicated VIP phone number or Web site in any market including the Beltway region.”

The existence of the “VIP” lists came to light in a little-noticed nine-year-old lawsuit, which Washingtonian recently obtained. In August 2005, Comcast sued Melody Khalatbari, a former public affairs manager responsible for Montgomery County, for misappropriating trade secrets. According to documents Comcast filed in federal court, Khalatbari had left the cable giant for a job with a key competitor, Verizon. But before her departure, Comcast said, Khalatbari transferred more than 75 Comcast files to her home computer. The “VIP” lists were among the documents Comcast accused her of taking.

In court documents, Comcast alleged that Khalatbari planned to use the confidential materials at Verizon and demanded more than $75,000 in damages and an injunction preventing Khalatbari from using the documents. Khalatbari later agreed to return the materials.

Khalatbari could not be reached for comment for this story.

Here’s Comcast’s 2005 filing:

Comcast filing shows company kept VIP lists

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.