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Microsoft draws new fire for lobbyist ties

Gay rights groups say software company should sever relationship with former Christian Coalition director.

Microsoft came under renewed criticism from gay- and lesbian-rights groups on Tuesday after an online report indicated that the company is using former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed's lobbying firm.

The software giant has drawn fire over the past few weeks for in the state of Washington, shortly after being pressured to do so by a conservative local pastor. The bill subsequently failed by a single vote.

Gay and lesbian groups have historically been well-disposed toward the company, which offers domestic partner benefits and has included sexual orientation in its own antidiscrimination policies. But those groups are now calling for Microsoft to sever its connection to Reed's Century Strategies firm and to hold talks with them on rights issues.

"We're just dismayed that as an agent of Microsoft, (Reed) might have played a role in the defeat of equal rights for all Washingtonians," said George Cheung, executive director of Equal Rights Washington, a Seattle-based gay- and lesbian-rights group. Cheung's group has invited the company's top executives to a town hall meeting this Friday to discuss the company's future activities.

A company spokesman said Microsoft has used Reed's consulting firm continuously since 2000 on international-trade and competition issues. That work had nothing to do with the Washington state legislative issue, the spokesman said.

"They have never advised Microsoft in any way on any social-policy issues," spokesman Mark Murray said. "Those are two completely unrelated things."

In an e-mail circulated internally, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer explained the company's change of policy on the Washington state bill as part of a broader decision to avoid social-policy issues that might prove divisive internally. He said the pressure by the conservative local pastor had not been responsible for the company's decision.

A Seattle Times interview with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, published Tuesday, appeared to indicate that the company could reconsider its position on the legislation next year. Murray said Gates' words were not meant to show a reversal of policy but that the company was taking into consideration the large number of e-mails it had received on both sides of the issue.

The company's connection to Reed was reported by AmericaBlog, a Washington D.C.-based site that writes on politics and gay civil-rights issues.

Microsoft originally hired Reed as a lobbyist in 1998, while still facing antitrust litigation. In 2000, Reed's firm sent letters to influential Republicans asking them to contact then-presidential candidate George Bush on behalf of the company. After the tactic surfaced in a New York Times article, Reed halted the practice, apologizing for any appearance of conflict of interest.

Reed has long been associated with the religious conservative arm of the Republican party, which has actively opposed gay marriage and antidiscrimination legislation. However, during his own tenure as executive director of the Christian Coalition, Reed struck a more moderate rhetorical tone on gay issues than did many of his political allies.

Reed is now a candidate for lieutenant governor in his home state of Georgia.