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House Panel Ratchets Up Scrutiny of FCC’s Martin

Oct 7, 2008  •  Post A Comment

A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel is readying a report expected to question whether Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin went too far in keeping FCC decisions and policymaking to a close-knit group of subordinates.
A committee official today confirmed that a report on a 10-month-long probe of Mr. Martin’s management style would likely be issued later this month, replacing what was originally planned to be a committee hearing on Mr. Martin’s management.
Since last December, the committee’s Oversight and Investigations Panel headed by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., has been examining Mr. Martin’s management in the wake of complaints, some made publicly by the cable industry and by other commissioners. Most of the public complaints were that Mr. Martin kept a tight rein on data essential to decisions — including one to expand the FCC’s oversight of cable — until the last minute, making it difficult for other commissioners and the cable industry to weigh in or rebut.
In several letters to Mr. Martin, the panel has stated that it has also heard private complaints from FCC staffers that Mr. Martin has made it difficult to do their jobs. There also have been complaints that the FCC doesn’t follow basic processes of open government, disclosing few details about items commissioners vote on before the vote is over, essentially preventing public input.
FCC commissioners commonly votes on issues without detailing what exactly they are voting on, then can take months to detail what was approved, apparently amidst post-vote maneuvering. Most government agencies detail what they are acting on either before approval or swiftly after approval.
In December House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., in announcing the probe, said the inquiry was intended to determine whether the FCC processes “are fair, open and transparent and that they serve the public interest.”
At the time, Rep. Dingell said a number of incidents had raised his doubts about the agency.
“Given several events and proceedings over the past year, I am rapidly losing confidence that the commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner,” he said. “A trend appears to be emerging of short-circuiting procedural norms, suggesting a larger breakdown at the agency. … Commissioners are not informed of the details of draft items until it is too late to provide the necessary scrutiny and analysis.”
In January the committee, in a second letter to Mr. Martin, questioned whether the FCC’s regulatory practices were being conducted “in a fair, efficient and transparent manner.”
At the time the committee said the investigation was intended to address “a growing number of allegations … relating to management practices that affect the agency’s operation.”
In March, a third letter seeking a broad range of information about FCC policymaking asked about the reasons the FCC delayed holding some votes and making required reports to Congress.
That letter got more specific about the allegations the committee was hearing, saying they were coming “from current for former FCC employees and other sources … [relating] to management practices that may adversely affect the commission’s ability to discharge its statutory duties and to guard against waste, fraud and abuse.”
The letter said the allegations “are believed to be credible.”
That letter also asked for information about FCC directives barring staff from talking to each other and outsiders concerning FCC business. It questioned how the decision came down on which commissioner would attend a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. It also questioned how the decision to redo a 2004 FCC report that had suggested that letting consumers choose cable channels a la carte would increase costs came about and how the “peer review” of the new report with an opposite conclusion was handled.
Mr. Martin has sent the committee more than 40 boxes of documents in response and in his one public letter back to Mr. Dingell in December denied that FCC procedures had significantly changed from prior chairmen.
“Commission processes and decision-making time frames remain essentially the same as the general decision-making procedures established nearly ten years ago,” he said.
An FCC spokesman said today the agency is working with the committee.
“We continue to cooperate with the review and investigation,” said the spokesman.

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