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WASHINGTON — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that an investigation has concluded that his office found no evidence of impropriety or favoritism by his office toward Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was seeking to merge with Tribune Media.

The inspector general, David Hunt, launched an investigation at the request of Democrats on Capitol Hill. They outlined a series of moves they said raised questions of whether Pai was favoring Sinclair, including the relaxation of a key media ownership rule.

The full report is here.

“When asked specific questions as to whether any actions that ultimately may have inured to Sinclair’s benefit were influenced by any promises or threats either by Sinclair or any other entity, including President Trump or the Executive Office of President, the Chairman unequivocally replied in the negative,” Hunt wrote, adding that “we have found no evidence that would lead us to question these responses.”

The review also addressed how Pai’s office handled Sinclair’s proposed merger with Tribune Media, creating an unprecedented broadcast giant. Democrats cited the FCC’s move in April of 2017 to restore a rule that allows station groups to “discount” the reach of their UHF outlets and then stay below media ownership limits. Sinclair relied on that discount in reaching a merger deal with Tribune in May of 2017.

That transaction ultimately was scuttled earlier this month after Pai and other FCC commissioners voted to send the transaction to an administrative judge for review, citing Sinclair’s potential misrepresentations and lack of candor during the review process.

Pai, in a statement, said that the inspector general “concluded that there was ‘no evidence, nor even the suggestion, of impropriety, unscrupulous behavior, favoritism towards Sinclair, or lack of impartiality related to the proposed Sinclair-Tribune Merger.’”

The chairman had insisted that he long had argued that the FCC’s media ownership rules needed an update.

“As I said when this investigation was first announced, the suggestion that I favored any one company was absurd, and today’s report proves that Capitol Hill Democrats’ politically-motivated accusations were entirely baseless,” he said in a statement.

According to Pai, the inspector general’s report concluded that after an investigation, “we 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.” The inspector general also said that the review “did not reveal any improper actions.”

The inspector general also cited the FCC’s move in December to fine $13 million for Sinclair for sponsorship ID violations. The fine was the largest that the FCC had ever imposed for violation of those rules.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who requested the investigation, said that Pai’s “relationship with Sinclair needed to be investigated in light of Sinclair’s ties to the President and the Chairman’s abysmal responses to Congressional Democrats’ numerous oversight letters.
“It should not take an IG investigation to get answers to basic questions regarding independence and integrity,” he said.

He also noted that the report “provides the first detailed responses to Congress’ questions. Beyond that, questions remain regarding the Chairman’s personal communications, which the IG noted were beyond his reach, and his conversations with Jared Kushner and Don McGhan.  I’m glad the IG confirmed he will conduct an additional forensic examination on communications with the White House.”