The inspector general for the Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation last month into the leak of private information ahead of a vote to offer internet subsidies to low-income Americans.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he is cooperating with the probe and believes information about the agency's deliberations was shared outside the agency.
“I intend to fully cooperate with this investigation and look forward to its findings,” Wheeler wrote to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff MORE (R-S.D.) this week.
The inquiry involves the hectic time before the vote in March, when a deal to change Wheeler’s proposal quickly came together but then fell apart. The vote by the five commissioners was delayed for more than three hours as backroom negotiations took place.
Critics allege that Wheeler’s office leaked news of the potential deal to impose a firm $2 billion budget cap on the program, called Lifeline, in order to scuttle the deal.
Wheeler’s Democratic colleague Mignon Clyburn, who negotiated the deal in order to bring Republicans on board, received intense lobbying from Democrats on Capitol Hill the day of the vote. She eventually reversed course, and the FCC ended up passing the original proposal without GOP support.
Wheeler did not acknowledge that his office leaked the information, but he noted that the chairman’s office has the ability to release private information “if it is in the interest of the agency.”
Wheeler pointed out that Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai’s office publicly released that same information that day. But the public statements from the Republican and his office came after the deal had already fallen apart.
Private information from the FCC regularly leaks to the press with no investigation. For example, last month multiple news outlets reported that Wheeler was circulating an order to approve a multibillion-dollar merger between Charter and Time Warner Cable before it became public.
Thune’s office said in addition to the inspector general investigation, his committee would “continue to examine” the matter.
“In his response, Chairman Wheeler maintains he has broad authority to release nonpublic information unilaterally, in apparent contradiction of the plain language of FCC rules,” committee spokesman Frederick Hill said. “Further, his response did not answer the question of whether he authorized a leak of nonpublic information on March 31.”