FCC commish pushes pundit payola probe

Williams under microscope for possible payoffs

WASHINGTON — An FCC commissioner vowed to press the agency to investigate allegations that conservative pundit Armstrong Williams may have violated federal laws against payola.

Speaking to reporters after the commission’s open monthly meeting on Thursday, Democrat Jonathan S. Adelstein, one of the agency’s five commissioners, said that he had personally received a dozen letters of complaint against Williams for failing to disclose that the Dept. of Education had paid him more than $240,000 to tout the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act during his broadcast appearances.

Adelstein referred the letters to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, which evaluates complaints and decides whether an investigation is merited. “I certainly hope the FCC will take action and fully investigate whether any laws have been broken,” said Adelstein, former senior legislative aide to Sen. Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who failed to win re-election. “I’m going to insist. We need to get to the bottom of this.”

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Although payola typically involves secret payments to radio disc jockeys to play specific records, Adelstein said federal laws regarding payola have a broader reach. “Any individual who is paid to say something on the air must disclose that payment,” he said. “The laws are clear.”

Owners of licensed television and radio stations can also be implicated, Adelstein said. “The statutes say that broadcasters must exercise ‘reasonable diligence’ to determine if anyone on their airwaves is receiving payola.” If they fail to do so, he added, they, too, could be held to action.

Michael Powell, the agency’s top commissioner, said he had not yet seen the complaints. David H. Solomon, chief of the Enforcement Bureau, said he had only seen “a few,” adding that his office had only received copies of the letters within the past 24 hours. He declined further comment.

Williams agreed to have his media company produce ads and spots promoting the No Child Left Behind Act in return for approximately $241,000 in taxpayer money. Secretary of Education Roderick Paige sometimes made guest appearances alongside Williams, a former aide to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Adelstein said the Williams allegations fuel his concern that payola in general is threatening to become as widespread a problem as it was in the 1950s. Citing the recent firing of a top programming executive at Entercom Communications for taking improper gifts from the recording industry, Adelstein asked Solomon to make payola investigations a priority in 2005. Solomon made no commitment.