Ajit Pai, the chair of the US Federal Communications Commission, is under investigation.
The FCC’s inspector general – a non-partisan, independent investigator whose purpose is to make sure no one’s playing favourites – is examining whether Pai took actions that would directly benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media company that includes television stations.
The New York Times reports that Pai started in motion a change in regulations that would allow broadcasters to own more stations. Within weeks of the April announcement, Sinclair Broadcast said it was buying Tribune Media for $3.9 billion. Without the new regs, the deal would not have been possible.
Now the IG is trying to determine whether the announcement had anything to do with the media merger.
“For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who serves on the House of Representative’s committee with oversight on the FCC. “I am grateful to the FCC’s inspector general that he has decided to take up this important investigation.”
These investigations tend to be held close to the vest until they’re completed; the scope and findings of the research usually isn’t disclosed until after the IG has conducted its work and the agency has a chance to respond to any discoveries. However, “the inquiry puts a spotlight on Mr. Pai’s decisions and whether there had been coordination with the company. It may also force him to answer questions that he has so far avoided addressing in public,” the NYTimes continued.
Sinclair hasn’t provided a comment. But in a statement released Feb. 15, an FCC spokesperson points out that the commission just proposed a $13 million fine against Sinclair “for a violation of the Commission’s sponsorship identification rules,” there for an accusation of favouritism “is absurd.
“Moreover, Chairman Pai has for many years called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations to match the realities of the modern marketplace,” the statement continues. “The chairman’s actions on these issues have been consistent with his long-held views. Considering 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 the reforms that the FCC has adopted.”
Then again, a piece from the Times last August found “Mr. Pai and his staff members had met and corresponded with Sinclair executives several times. One meeting, with Sinclair’s executive chairman, took place days before Mr. Pai, who was appointed by President Trump, took over as FCC chairman.”
In the name of fairness, it’s a regular occurrence in DC for interested parties to meet with the government agency that regulates or oversees them, both to express their interests and talk about regulations as they pertain to their industry and to try and gauge their positions on said bylaws. Remember that the president had a big meeting with Silicon Valley execs early in his administration to talk about technology and social media and their role in his administration.
It could all be a coincidence. It might not be a duck, despite quacking and looking like one. As someone who used to read IG documents all the time (and, admittedly, finds them fascinating), if there are any improprieties, they will come to light.
Consider, however, that Sinclair “is the largest local TV station operator in the US and is known for a broadly right-leaning and specifically pro-Trump political bent; it also owns right-wing news cite Circa,” as The Verge notes.
Then again, this might not be illegal, even if Pai did basically remove regulatory roadblocks to help the merger move along.
“Simply meeting and corresponding with a company set to benefit from rule changes isn’t illegal, even if it wreaks of cronyism,” says Digital Music News. “Indeed, critics have blasted Pai’s former employment at Verizon, an obvious beneficiary of net neutrality rollbacks. But cronyism is different than corruption, though neither are considered good government. It’s just that the latter can land you in jail.”
Either way, it’s not the best cloud to have over Pai’s head right now.
These suspicions come as any traction and support the FCC might have had over implementing their proposed net neutrality regulations is becoming moot.
Some 14 states have signed or introduced legislation that would enforce and protect net neutrality as established under the Obama Administration, while another seven states have similar legislation under consideration.
“States from ruby-red Nebraska to coastal California are rebelling against the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality rules,” according to Quartz. “A few national Republican officials, Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Colorado Representative Mike Coffman among them, have broken with the Trump Administration on the issue, and Democrats claim to have bipartisan support to overrule the FCC ruling.”