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Inspector General: No Evidence FCC Chairman Concealed White House Contact Over Sinclair

Ajit PaiFCC Chair Ajit Pai testifies
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutte

WASHINGTON — The FCC’s inspector general has found no evidence that chairman Ajit Pai concealed or covered up his contact with the White House regarding Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed merger with Tribune Media.

At issue was a conversation that Pai had with then-White House Counsel Don McGahn on July 17, the day after Pai proposed sending the Sinclair-Tribune merger to an administrative law judge. In a surprise announcement, Pai said that he had “serious concerns” about the transaction, and the decision to send it to the judge ended up killing the deal. The FCC alleged that Sinclair engaged in “a potential element of misrepresentation or lack of candor” in its effort to secure approval for the deal.

On Monday, in fact, Nexstar announced a deal to acquire the Tribune stations.

Congressional Democrats have been suspicious of the White House’s support of the Sinclair-Tribune transaction, and whether it had exerted any influence on the FCC to approve the deal.

Pai disclosed the conversation with McGahn in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Aug. 16. Pai said that McGahn had seen the news about the Sinclair-Tribune deal, and merely asked about the status of the proposed FCC action.

But Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) asked the inspector general to investigate whether Pai should have disclosed the contact with McGahn at a different hearing, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on July 25.

At that hearing, Pallone raised the issue of the Sinclair-Tribune merger and asked Pai, “If the President or anyone in the White House discusses or has discussed the Sinclair-Tribune merger with you or anyone at the FCC, will you commit to disclosing that in the public docket?”

Pai responded with a yes, but noted that “we have ex parte rules, because this is now a restricted proceeding. We are limited in what information we can receive and what we can put on the record.”

Hunt, in his investigation report, concluded that Pallone “did not directly ask if there already had been discussions with President Trump or anyone in the White House related to the Sinclair matter; his concern was that any such contacts be placed in the public docket.” Hunt wrote that Pai’s response “was tailored to the question that was asked, and he committed to comply with Ranking Member Pallone’s request, to the extent permitted by the ex parte rules.”

He also concluded that Pai’s conversation with McGahn “does not appear to have been directed to the ‘merits or outcome of the proceeding.'” Because it was a status update, Hunt said, it did not require disclosure in the public docket.

Hunt also said that they “discovered no evidence of any other communications between the White House and FCC staff.”

Hunt’s office also investigated contacts between Pai and Sinclair, and in a report issued in late August, “found no evidence, nor even the suggestion, of impropriety, unscrupulous behavior, favoritism towards Sinclair, or lack of impartiality related to the proposed Sinclair-Tribune Merger.”

FCC spokesman Brian Hart said that they “are pleased that the Office of Inspector General has confirmed for a second time that there were no improper actions taken during the Sinclair-Tribune review process and that the investigation has concluded.”

The administrative law judge, Richard Sipple, has yet to rule on Sinclair conduct during the merger review, nor has he dismissed the case. Sinclair has denied allegations of misrepresenting facts or not being forthright about the merger plan.

Trump publicly criticized the FCC’s action on the Sinclair-Tribune merger, and wrong on Twitter that it was “so sad and unfair that the FCC wouldn’t approve the Sinclair Broadcast merger with Tribune. This would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People. Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!”

Trump continued to remark on Pai’s decision last month, when the FCC chairman attended a ceremony for Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.

“I just didn’t like one decision he made, but that’s all right,” Trump said. “Not even a little bit.  But he’s independent.”

A House Energy and Commerce committee spokesman for Pallone said, “While we appreciate the Inspector General’s office looking into this matter, we do not agree with its finding that Pai did not need to disclose this information in the public docket based on his commitment to Ranking Member Pallone. Regardless, as Democrats move into the Majority, the Committee will expect witnesses to follow through on their commitments and respond fully to the questions asked by its members.”