Frontier axes WV Senate president weeks after broadband vote

Gazette-Mail file photo
Sens. Mitch Carmichael (right) and Jeff Kessler (center) in the West Virginia Legislature in 2015.

Frontier Communications has laid off West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a six-year Frontier executive who noted Monday that his dismissal follows his refusal to torpedo a broadband internet expansion bill that the company vigorously opposed.

Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Frontier cut him loose 10 days ago, citing a “reduction in force.”

On April 7, Carmichael, a Frontier sales manager at the time, voted for a comprehensive broadband bill that aims to improve and expand high-speed internet across the state by spurring competition. Frontier, West Virginia’s largest internet provider, lobbied against the legislation, which Gov. Jim Justice signed into law on April 26.

“The one thing I’m not going to do here as Senate president is advance special interests,” Carmichael said. “It was obvious the body [Legislature] wanted that bill, and I wasn’t going to stand in the way of it.”

Carmichael said Monday that his dismissal came as a surprise. The company gave him a two-week notice that he was being let go, he said. He said he is unaware of any other employees being laid off in recent weeks.

Carmichael said he thought he was doing a good job at Frontier and didn’t want to leave the company.

“This was not something I wanted at all,” he said. “They had a bad year, from a legislative perspective. They severed ties from me.”

Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski issued a short email statement Monday: “Frontier does not comment on personnel matters.”

Carmichael said Frontier has asked him to sign a “nondisclosure” agreement that would prohibit him from talking about his dismissal. He said he refused to sign it.

As senate president, Carmichael was Frontier’s most powerful ally in the Legislature.

In August, Carmichael accepted a job with Frontier rival Citynet, a Bridgeport-based internet firm that has sued Frontier for allegedly stifling competition in West Virginia and using federal stimulus funds to build a broadband network that solely benefits Frontier. Within days, Carmichael changed his mind and returned to his job as sales director at Frontier — after the company gave him a significant pay raise.

“They begged me to stay,” Carmichael recalled Monday.

During the 2016 legislative session, Carmichael sharply criticized a bill that would have created a state-owned broadband network. On the Senate floor, Carmichael said the legislation would have discouraged internet providers like Frontier from expanding existing broadband networks or building new ones. Frontier also opposed the bill, which died in the House of Delegates.

Earlier this year, Carmichael broke ranks with Frontier lobbyists, declining to oppose legislation that allows up to 20 families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that provide broadband service in areas shunned by internet providers. The bill also authorizes up to three cities or counties to band together and build broadband networks.

Frontier argued that the state should target areas without broadband — and not try to spur broadband projects in communities that already have the service.

The legislation passed by overwhelming margins in the House and Senate. Supporters predict increased competition will lead to faster internet speeds and lower prices for consumers.

Carmichael recused himself from the debate over the bill on the Senate floor, and later voted for it.

On Monday, Carmichael said he has no regrets over his vote — even though it might have cost him his job.

“As Senate president, my role is to facilitate the will of the members and advance good public policy,” he said. “The [legislators] wanted it, and the public wanted it.”

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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