Confirming one of D.C.’s hottest rumors, the U.S. Telephone Assn. on Monday named White House deputy chief of staff Roy Neel president of the telco lobbying org, effective March 1.

Announcement represents a coup for USTA, which hopes to influence information superhighway legislation pending in Congress and is banking on the well-connected Neel to help sell a policy agenda that includes allowing telcos immediate entry into the cable TV arena.

Though Neel may begin lobbying members of Congress immediately, tougher ethics rules unveiled by the Clinton administration prohibit him from meeting with the White House on telco matters for five years. Neel will also be restricted from lobbying with members of the FCC for one year.

Nevertheless, USTA board of directors chairman Gary McBee called Neel “the right man for the right time … especially as the telephone industry prepares to take its place in developing and implementing the national information infrastructure.”

It’s believed that USTA had been wooing the 48-year-old Neel for months to take the post left vacant in October by the departure of ex-prexy John Sodolski. Neel was considered by many to be an obvious choice, given his extensive background on telecommunications issues.

Neel was a longtime telecommunications adviser to Vice President Al Gore during Gore’s tenure in Congress, and he had a hand in crafting portions of the 1992 cable TV reregulation bill. He joined Gore at the White House after the 1992 election, but soon moved to the White House deputy chief of staff post. Neel is known to be an occasional golfing buddy of President Clinton’s.

Neel will leave the White House job Dec. 31.

Though USTA execs wouldn’t comment, it’s believed Neel will earn upward of $ 500,000 per year.

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