Senator floats investigation on FCC leaks

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown Senate dodges initial December crisis with last-minute deal Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight MORE (R-S.D.) is asking the Federal Communications Commission to investigate any employee misconduct in the hours ahead of a hectic meeting last month, where the agency approved rules to offer Internet subsidies to low-income Americans.

Thune expressed concern that agency officials might have leaked nonpublic information in an attempt to thwart a last-minute agreement between three commissioners — two Republicans and one Democrat — to change FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal ahead of the vote. 

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"Does the commission plan to investigate who leaked information about the deliberations, pursuant to commission rules? If not, why not?" Thune asked in a four-page letter sent to Wheeler on Friday.

The agency should "consider this letter a complaint requiring an investigation," according to Thune, who leads the Senate Commerce Committee. 

A spokesperson for Wheeler said the agency had received the letter but had no further comment on a potential investigation. 

In a hectic day at the FCC, the commission approved regulations last month that would expand the federal Lifeline program, so that it could begin offering $9.25 subsidies for poor people to purchase Internet, mobile or phone service. The program had previously only offered subsidies for basic phone service. 

The meeting was unexpectedly delayed for hours as largely unprecedented negotiations went on behind the scenes. 

The night before the meeting, Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn had agreed to language to put a firm $2 billion cap on the program, as well as other changes, to bring the two Republican commissioners onboard. 

She signed off on the deal in the minutes before the meeting was postponed. But Clyburn ended up reversing course, and the commission passed the original proposal without a hard budget cap on a party-line vote. 

In the hours the vote was delayed, Clyburn received strong lobbying from members of Congress. And Republicans accused Wheeler's office of leaking news of the potential deal so that outside advocates would have time to ramp up pressure against it. 

Thune's letter specifically references reports in Politico and the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable.

Any violation of FCC rules would surround the release of nonpublic information and violation of the FCC's sunshine rules. 

In the week ahead of a vote, most lobbying at the FCC is supposed to cease, but Congress can continue to lobby as long as it is disclosed. 

FCC officials are also generally barred from releasing details of regulations before they are approved, unless authorized. Wheeler has said the agency's practice for years has been to rely on authorization from the chairman or his staff, which does not have to be in writing. But Thune questioned that interpretation.