FCC boss Ajit Pai is being investigated by his own agency over potential corruption allegations.
The already-unpopular agency boss has been on a tear in recent months gutting decades old media-consolidation rules designed to protect consumers and the nation’s media markets from any one broadcaster becoming too powerful.
Pai’s efforts arrived, not coincidentally, at the same time Sinclair Broadcasting Group is attempting to acquire Tribune Media as part of a $3.9 billion dollar megamerger. It’s a deal a bipartisan chorus of critics say would demolish media diversity, resulting in Sinclair owning more than 230 local stations across 72 percent of the United States.
Given criticism of Sinclair for its often distorted and inaccurate news reporting, consumer advocates say the deal would have a profoundly negative impact on the quality and diversity of media discourse, as well as already dwindling competition in the space.
Without Pai’s assistance on this front, the Sinclair merger would have been impossible. Now the New York Times indicates that the FCC’s Inspector General has launched an investigation into whether Pai acted inappropriately as he rushed to dismantle media consolidation rules.
Late last year, "the top internal watchdog for the F.C.C. opened an investigation into whether Mr. Pai and his aides had improperly pushed for the rule changes and whether they had timed them to benefit Sinclair," the report states.
"It was unclear the extent of the inspector general’s investigation or when it might conclude, but the inquiry puts a spotlight on Mr. Pai’s decisions and whether there had been coordination with the company," said the Times. "It may also force him to answer questions that he has so far avoided addressing in public." Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), who has been calling for an inquiry for much of last year, was quick to applaud the revelations.
“For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” Pallone said on Twitter.
“I am particularly concerned about reports that Chairman Pai may have coordinated with Sinclair to time a series of Commission actions to benefit the company,” Pallone added. “I am grateful to the FCC’s Inspector General that he has decided to take up this important investigation.”
Consumer groups were similarly-quick to pounce on the announcement.
"Until the inspector general’s investigation is complete, Chairman Pai and any other FCC staff subject to this inquiry should recuse themselves from all dealings related to Sinclair’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media," Free Press Senior Counsel Jessica J. González said in a statement.
"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,” González added.
The inquiry joins a rotating crop of other investigations into Pai’s behavior during his first controversial year as agency head. A GAO inquiry is also looking into why Pai’s FCC appears to have made up a DDOS attack in order to try and downplay massive public opposition to the agency’s repeal of popular net neutrality rules.
Pai’s agency is also facing numerous lawsuits over allegations that Pai ignored the public as he rushed to repeal those rules. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman penned an open letter to Pai last year effectively accusing him of blocking a law enforcement inquiry into the numerous bogus comments that flooded the agency in support of its unpopular repeal.
Pai has frequently made light of concerns he’s too cozy with the giant corporations he’s supposed to be holding accountable. And while these investigations and lawsuits may or may not culminate in evidence of corruption or violation of agency rules, Pai’s policies alone leave few questions about where his loyalties lie.