Watchdog rips FCC junkets

Center decries org's staff trips

WASHINGTON — The Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group opposing Federal Communications Commission plans to rewrite media ownership rules, accused agency officials of taking more than $2.8 million in industry-paid junkets in the past eight years.

The eight-year period includes five years during the Clinton administration when a Democratic majority was atop the FCC. Current topper Michael Powell, the main author of the rule changes, was one of the first appointees President Bush made after he was sworn into office in 2001.

The top four destinations for industry-paid travel include Las Vegas, New Orleans and New York, but FCC staff members were also ferried to Paris, Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro.

The biggest industry sponsor of the trips was the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which paid $191,000 to bring 206 FCC officials to events. The National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. came in second, doling out $173,000 for 125 employees. The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn. placed third, with $149,000 for 103 employees.

“The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable,” said Charles Lewis, executive director of the center.

The FCC is skedded to vote on the rules changes June 2, and it is widely expected to relax several longstanding restrictions, allowing companies to buy more TV and radio stations.

FCC spokesman David Fiske noted that the report included five years before Powell was appointed to the top job and rejected any suggestion that the trips influenced the way officials drafts regulations.

“These kinds of trips and events have nothing to do with how the FCC writes its rules,” he said. “Most of the time, we are getting conflicting views, and a heavy percentage of these trips are not policy-oriented but technology events.

“It’s just valuable exchanges of technical information.”

Fiske said the FCC does not have the budget to send its employees to places and venues where the industry is gathering to educate people about new technology and products. Most of the trips the report cites are university-sponsored events and forums and industry conventions and conferences like the upcoming National Cable Television Assn. confab, which will take place in Chicago in early June.

“There’s careful ethics scrutiny on every trip,” he said. “Not being held captive inside the Beltway is an extremely good public interest goal.”

Aside from the trips, FCC officials are held to the same strict $20 gift ban as all executive department employees. They also are prohibited from owning stock in any company the agency oversees.

The center also analyzed the hometown media markets of each of the five commissioners, arguing that it found a heavy concentration of ownership by large out-of-town media companies in four of them.

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