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Bankrupt firm seeks OK to hire lobbyists despite debt

Taxpayers on hook for more than $70M

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On the same week a congressional panel launched a probe into bankrupt wireless provider Open Range Communications — which has laid off most of its workforce and owes taxpayers more than $70 million — the company decided it needs more Washington lobbyists.

Colorado-based Open Range, which already has a former Republican congressman-turned-lobbyist on call, is seeking a bankruptcy judge's permission also to retain the lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, whose lobbyists include a fundraiser for President Obama's 2008 campaign, according to court papers.

Open Range won a $267 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural-development division in the waning days of the Bush administration. The company planned to provide wireless broadband services in hundreds of rural communities.

Instead, Open Range filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 6, owing the USDA more than $70 million and prompting a congressional investigation.

Last week, Democrats and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee called on the USDA's Rural Utilities Service to turn over information about the decision to approve the loan to Open Range.

In a letter to the USDA, the chairman of the committee, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan Republican, and its ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, called for a briefing on the Open Range loan and a host of loan documents.

"Open Range's bankruptcy potentially puts $73.5 million of taxpayer money at risk," the lawmakers wrote in a letter signed by four other members of the committee, two Democrats and two Republicans.

Meanwhile, company attorneys filed papers in the Open Range bankruptcy case in Delaware asking to hire Brownstein Hyatt, which earned more than $200,000 in lobbying fees this year before the company's bankruptcy. The lobbyists working for the company included Norman Brownstein, a fundraiser to Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign, and Alfred Mottur, who has raised money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

A spokeswoman for the firm last week told The Washington Times that nobody was available to discuss the firm's work for Open Range, and a bankruptcy lawyer who filed the court papers to retain the firm did not respond to messages.

The Times previously reported that Open Range had also retained as a lobbyist a former Republican congressman, Jon Christensen, who earned more than a quarter-million dollars in lobbying fees from the company since last year. He declined to comment.

The hiring of lobbyists by a company that's already fired most of its employees and stopped accepting new customers raised questions among several Washington watchdog groups.

"It just goes to show how instrumental lobbyists are if they're more important than customers and employees," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said, when asked earlier this month about Mr. Christensen's hiring.

All the company has said about the hires came in court filings in recent weeks, in which bankruptcy attorneys for Open Range referred to Mr. Christensen, among others, as "ordinary course professionals" who provide services outside the scope of the company's bankruptcy.

The company said that without such professionals, Open Range would incur additional and unnecessary expenses by hiring others without the same background and expertise.

The filings also state that the hirings would "avoid any disruption in the professional services required in the day-to-day operation of its business and are thus in the best interests of [Open Range] and its estate."

In an affidavit filed in the bankruptcy case, Mr. Christensen, a lawyer who served two terms in Congress from Nebraska in the 1990s, said he represented the company as counsel. He also said Open Range requested him to continue to provide services during the bankruptcy case.

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