Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is under investigation by the agency’s independent watchdog over decisions that benefit Sinclair Broadcasting. FCC Inspector General (IG) David Hunt agreed to conduct the investigation after it was requested in November 2017 by two Democratic lawmakers.
“For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), said in a statement today. “I am grateful to the FCC’s inspector general that he has decided to take up this important investigation.”
The investigation was reported today by The New York Times.
The IG will “investigate whether FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and his aides improperly pushed for rule changes to benefit Sinclair Broadcasting in the company’s attempt to purchase Tribune Media,” Pallone’s office said in a press release today. “The investigation will also look into whether Pai and his aides improperly coordinated with Sinclair on those rule changes.”
The IG’s investigation was requested by Pallone, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and by Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Pallone and Cummings told the IG that they had “repeatedly asked for all correspondence between Chairman Pai, his office, and Sinclair,” without much success. “The Chairman has repeatedly refused to answer these inquiries, raising questions about whether he is appropriately following Commission rules,” they told Hunt in their November request for an investigation.
Call for recusal
Advocacy group Free Press and other groups today called on Pai “to recuse himself from all decisions related to the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media.”
We contacted Pai’s office today and will update this story if we get a response.
In November, Pai’s office told Ars that the request for an investigation “appears to be part of many Democrats’ attempt to target one particular company because of its perceived political views.”
“Any claim that Chairman Pai is modifying the rules now to benefit one particular company is completely baseless,” Pai’s office also said at the time. “For many years, Chairman Pai has called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations—one of which dates back to 1975. The Chairman is sticking to his long-held views, and given the strong case for modernizing these rules, it’s not surprising that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of his proposals.”
“Pro-Trump messages in exchange for policy favors”
Among other decisions, Pai’s FCC rolled back broadcast TV station ownership limits, which could help Sinclair complete its pending acquisition of Tribune Media Company. The merger would let Sinclair, which the Timesdescribes as a “conservative TV giant,” reach 72 percent of TV-owning households in the US.
“If the merger is approved, the conservative broadcaster would be able to air politically biased programming to more than 70 percent of the US population,” Free Press said today.
The FCC also “established an expedited timeline for its review of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune transaction, allowing Sinclair to grow as quickly as possible,” and it “approved Sinclair’s multimillion-dollar deal to purchase stations owned by Bonten Media Group, shortly after the FCC revoked a processing guidance that would have required close scrutiny of the transaction,” House Democrats said in a letter to Pai in August 2017.
Trump reportedly discussed potential FCC rule changes in a meeting with Sinclair’s executive chairman, and Pai or his staff “have met with Sinclair representatives on numerous occasions,” Pallone and Cummings wrote to the IG in November.
“The publicly available evidence suggests a pattern of abuse where Sinclair forces its local stations to air pro-Trump messages in exchange for policy favors from the Trump administration and its FCC chairman,” Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica González said.
Free Press wants “Pai and any other FCC staff subject to this inquiry [to] recuse themselves from all dealings related to Sinclair’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media,” González said. “If the investigation finds that Pai or any other FCC staff did indeed let their own bias and favoritism shape decisions related to the deal, they must not be permitted to vote on this matter and they should be subject to other appropriate ethics-review processes.”
Investigation likely won’t be quick
The FCC IG declined to comment publicly on whether it is investigating, but Hunt informed Congressional aides that it is investigating during a meeting in December, the Times article said. There’s no word on how long the investigation will take.
The inspector general is a nonpartisan position. Hunt has been the IG since 2011 and was the acting IG starting in 2009.
IG findings aren’t necessarily made public as a matter of course, but they are sometimes disclosed to Congress or to the public via Freedom of Information Act requests.
After an investigation that took more than a year, an August 2016 report by the FCC IG found no evidence of improper coordination between then-Chairman Tom Wheeler and the White House on net neutrality regulation. The report wasn’t made public until December 2017.
The FCC also faces a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation related to alleged DDoS attacks on its system for accepting public comments. In that case, Democratic lawmakers asked for evidence that the attacks actually happened, and for information on whether the FCC is prepared to stop future attacks.