House Democrats Ask FCC Chairman for More Information on Sinclair Contacts

Ajit Pai Free Speech

WASHINGTON — As FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is poised to get a Senate vote on a new term next week, House Democrats are again pressing him for more information related to his contacts with Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is seeking agency approval for its merger with Tribune Media.

Pai answered a series of questions posed by the House Democrats about the Sinclair-Tribune transaction earlier this month, but those lawmakers say that the FCC chairman failed to provide all of the requested correspondence between he and his staff, and Sinclair representatives.

“We reiterate our request that you provide all correspondence between you and members of your office, and representatives of Sinclair, including any lobbyists and lawyers representing Sinclair, since Nov. 8, 2016, regardless of whether it is subject to a FOIA request,” the House Democrats wrote in the letter.

It was signed by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology; and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Pai had previously offered copies of correspondence that had been produced in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. But House Democrats want more information, including correspondence on the merger, license transfer applications, and other proceedings. They also are questioning Pai about the timing of the FCC’s reinstatement of the so-called “UHF discount,” which allows companies to amass more TV stations and still stay within current media ownership limits.

A spokeswoman for Pai did not immediately return a request for comment.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats criticized Pai’s tenure in debate over his renomination, and some cited the proposed Sinclair transaction as a major cause for concern that he has pursued policies that will lead to greater media consolidation. Sinclair has also come under scrutiny for its ties to the Trump administration and for conservative commentary in local news broadcasts.

The Sinclair-Tribune merger would create a broadcasting giant with 223 TV stations serving 108 markets, including 39 of the top 50, and to cover about 72% of U.S. households.

In his letter earlier this month, Pai defended the FCC’s review of the Sinclair merger, and outlined a series of meetings with the company’s executives.

He wrote that he met with representatives of Sinclair on Nov. 16, when he spoke to a gathering of Sinclair station managers in Baltimore. He said he made a “brief presentation regarding some of the issues confronting the FCC and then took questions on a variety of topics.” He said that he also had “a brief lunch with some Sinclair executives” that day. He also outlined other meetings he had with Sinclair executives, including a Jan. 19 meeting in Arlington, Va., in which pending FCC business was discussed. A summary of the meeting was filed in the FCC’s public docket on Jan. 23, he wrote. It showed a discussion of the agency’s restrictions on shared-service agreements, rules that were eased early in February.

He also said that he met with President Donald Trump twice, before the inauguration on Jan. 16 and then again on March 6.

“We did not discuss any issue pending at the FCC involving Sinclair Broadcast Group, and I do not recall the Sinclair Broadcast Group even being mentioned at either meeting,” he wrote.

Update: A group of 23 Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also sent a letter to Pai to express their concerns over his actions to “weaken or eliminate” ownership rules. They also are raising questions of whether some of Pai’s actions were taken “knowing that they were essential to the business plans of a single company.” They said that no further action should be taken to relax ownership rules until there is another comprehensive review.