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House members chide ambassador on telecom ownership

Three prominent House members take to task U.S. Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky for not doing enough to encourage privatization of foreign government-owned telecom companies.

WASHINGTON--Three prominent House members took to task U.S. Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky today for not doing enough to encourage privatization of foreign government-owned telecom companies.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., Telecom subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Vice Chairman Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, wrote Barshefsky following the testimony of her deputy at a hearing last week.

Suggesting the U.S. trade representative is "insensitive to the concerns of Congress," they insisted Barshefsky answer a series of questions regarding foreign government ownership and provide a laundry list of internal items--including diaries, desk calendars, tape recordings, drawings, ledgers, papers and emails--no later than Sept. 21.

The issue of foreign ownership of U.S.-based telecommunications companies has come to the forefront because of increased merger interest between several European and Asian-based companies, such as NTT and Deutsche Telekom, and the likes of Qwest Communications International.

Some U.S. politicians are concerned about foreign telecommunications companies owned by their governments taking stakes in U.S.-based companies, a position that has important trade implications for the United States.

Deutsche Telekom already has invaded U.S. soil, scooping up VoiceStream Communications in July for over $52 billion. That deal has sparked controversy in Congress.

see related story: D.C. skeptical about foreign buyers The three congressmen said they were disappointed to learn that the government "could not identify a single instance in which USTR (U.S. trade representative Barshefsky) has raised the issue of government ownership with our trading partners."

A Barshefsky representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

Among the questions Barshefsky must answer are how a government can be impartial when owning a stake in a telecom provider, whether USTR believes such ownership is consistent with the trade agreement negotiated in 1997, to what extent the USTR has tried to encourage privatization, and whether the USTR plans to make this an issue in the next round of trade negotiations.

By setting a response date two weeks before the scheduled end of this year's Congress, Bliley, Tauzin and Oxley have allowed plenty of time for their colleagues to review the USTR's response, potentially influencing any last-minute vote that could occur on this legislation.