Candidates Line Up for FCC Positions

Jun 20, 2005  •  Post A Comment

With its salary capped at $143,000, a job as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission hardly qualifies as one of the better-paying executive positions in the media industry.

Considering that to get the job candidates must meticulously cultivate influential friends at the White House to get nominated, expose their personal finances to public scrutiny and then shamelessly curry favor with Senate leaders to win a vote of confirmation-many industry sources wonder why anyone would bother.

But inside the Washington Beltway, competition for what is considered a major political plum is fierce, largely because of the power and exposure the job offers-and the opportunity it provides for lucrative employment in the media industry after government service.

“With rare exceptions, it’s a golden revolving door to riches,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy.

“It makes you highly employable,” added one former FCC commissioner.

Depending on how conscientious a commissioner is, the job can also be a snap. Not only does each commissioner get his or her own office and staff, his or her only real obligation is to vote on issues that come before the agency. Much of the actual work on the issues-including face-to-face meetings with lobbyists-can be handled by staff.

The FCC, which is authorized to have a total of five commissioners, is currently deadlocked with two Republicans and two Democrats, and three positions are available. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is not expected to attack the media ownership issue until he can secure a Republican majority in the agency.

On the job, commissioners also have the opportunity to promote themselves and their positions on the government’s dime with appearances at industry events, many of which are held in such attractive vacation venues as Las Vegas and New Orleans. The commissioners are also A-list guests on the industry cocktail circuit.

The fortunate few, including Kevin Martin, parlay a job as a commissioner into a promotion to the agency’s chairmanship. Along with the added responsibilities of running the entire agency, the chairman receives a salary of $149,200 a year and the added esteem and recognition attendant to being the FCC’s top dog.

The real payoff for many comes after they step down from the agency and they move into the private sector, where their counsel is particularly valued by industry lobbyists.

Payoffs can be uniquely sweet for former FCC chairmen. Mark Fowler and Dennis Patrick, who chaired the agency during the Reagan administration, both used their connections in the telecommunications industry to become multimillionaire entrepreneurs.

Dick Wiley, who chaired the agency during the Nixon and Ford administrations, now heads Wiley Rein & Fielding, one of the nation’s most powerful telecommunications law firms. Charlie Ferris, FCC chairman during the Carter administration, is one of the industry’s most influential cable TV attorneys as a senior partner at the law firm Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo.

Of course, an assignment at the FCC offers no guarantee of a free pass through life ever after. In one of the agency’s most notorious recent examples, Stephen Sharp, a Republican commissioner during the Reagan administration, served time in prison after a conviction on child molestation charges.