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Administrative Judge Dismisses Hearing Over Sinclair’s Conduct During Tribune Merger Review

WASHINGTON — Sinclair Broadcast Group will not face a hearing on whether it engaged in misrepresentation or lack of candor as it presented its Tribune Media merger plans to the FCC.

While Administrative Law Judge Jane Halprin wrote on Tuesday that she was dismissing the hearing, she said some of the issues raised over the company’s conduct were serious enough to warrant consideration in some other proceedings, such as Sinclair’s attempts to renew existing broadcast licenses.

The Tribune transaction, which would have created a broadcast giant with more than 200 stations, was abandoned in August after the commission referred its review to an administrative law judge. The commissioners questioned whether Sinclair’s plans to sell some stations were in fact “sham” transactions, and a way to get around compliance with media ownership rules.

Sinclair denied that it misrepresented the transaction to the FCC, and sought to have the administrative hearing dismissed. But Halprin’s predecessor, Richard Sippel, never acted on the case before retiring late last year.

In her decision to dismiss the case, Halprin wrote that a hearing “would not be a prudent use of Commission time and resources.”

She wrote, “Certainly, the behavior of a multiple station owner before the Commission ‘may be so fundamental to a licensee’s operation that it is relevant to its qualifications to hold any station license.’ That broad inquiry, however, would be more appropriately considered in the context of a future proceeding in which Sinclair is seeking Commission approval, for example, involving an application for a license assignment, transfer, or renewal.”

She did write that the allegations against Sinclair were “extremely serious charges that reasonably warrant a thorough examination.” She wrote that providing false statements to the FCC “has been a basis for license revocation since the inception of the Communications Act in 1934.”

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill had urged the administrative judge to go forward with the hearing, and former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote that such an event would “assure that due process is afforded everyone.”

Free Press, a public interest group, is calling on the FCC to start early renewal proceedings to examine the claims against Sinclair. According to FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, Sinclair next faces the renewal of licenses in 2020.

“Some want us to act sooner. This is a serious issue. We need answers,” Starks, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the other Democrat on the commission, said, “honesty with the FCC is a foundational requirement for a license.  In light of our earlier unanimous finding that there were issues of lack of candor and misrepresentation with this licensee, the FCC should not turn a blind eye—we should open an investigation.”

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

When the Sinclair-Tribune merger was first proposed, it quickly drew scrutiny from Democrats on Capitol Hill, in part because Sinclair’s executive chairman, David Smith, has ties to President Trump.

Trump expressed his dismay at the FCC’s action last summer. He wrote on July 24 that it was “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!”

When FCC Chairman Ajit Pai visited the White House in November, Trump noted that he didn’t “like one decision he made, but that’s alright.” He then noted how the chairman was “independent.”

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