Investigation targets FCC chairman

Having recently angered almost everybody, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin is now the target of a congressional investigation into whether he is abusing his authority and if his leadership has led to “a breakdown in proper procedure at the FCC.”

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), head of the House Commerce Committee, sent Martin a letter Monday stating: “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.

“While this is certainly not true for every commission proceeding, a trend appears to be emerging of short-circuiting procedural norms, suggesting a larger breakdown at the agency.”

The move is unusual, but offers more proof that the Democrat-controlled Congress is ratcheting up its pressure on Martin — and insiders say it’s only going to get more intense.

Dingell asked for responses to questions raised in large part by allegations sent to one of his colleagues, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who chairs the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

“I have received several complaints from the public and professionals within the communications industry about how chairman Martin is conducting business at the FCC,” Stupak said in a statement. “It is one thing to be an aggressive leader, but many of the allegations indicate possible abuse of power and an attempt to intentionally keep fellow commissioners in the dark.”

Stupak added: “I look forward to investigating these concerns to be sure that the FCC chairman is not disenfranchising his fellow commissioners and the American public he is supposed to serve.”

Dingell implied that more questions would be coming, saying that the ones in the letter constituted an initial set that “will be pursued by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations for further inquiry into commission procedures to ensure that the commission processes are fair, open and transparent, and that they serve the public interest.”

Dingell asked Martin to respond to the letter by Dec. 10. An FCC spokesman declined to comment on the letter.

Last week, Martin presided over a rancorous commission meeting in which two commissioners — one a fellow Republican — accused the chairman of suppressing data that contradicted his policy objectives for the cable TV industry. Martin denied the charges.

Earlier last month, Martin announced a plan to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban subject to conditions.

Members of both parties in Congress criticized Martin’s cable policy objectives; both media companies and consumer groups attacked the cross-ownership plan.

Taken as a whole, Dingell wrote, these and other events “lead to larger concerns as to the inclination and ability of the commission to perform its core mission: the implementation of federal law to serve the public interest.”

Consumer watchdog Free Press welcomed the news. “The lack of transparency in FCC matters has left the public with little faith that the agency is acting in their best interest,” Free Press policy director Ben Scott said in a statement. “We welcome this investigation, and hope it will force the agency to base its broadcast ownership rules on the facts — facts that have been obscured by procedural shenanigans.”

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