FCC inspector general investigating chairman over Sinclair

FCC inspector general investigating chairman over Sinclair
© Greg Nash

The Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is being investigated by the agency's inspector general.

The inspector general wants to know whether Ajit Pai improperly pushed through rules in an effort to benefit the Sinclair Broadcast Group, according to The New York Times on Thursday.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Top Dems call for end to Medicaid work rules | Chamber launching ad blitz against Trump drug plan | Google offers help to dispose of opioids Top Dems call for end to Medicaid work rules after 18,000 lose coverage in Arkansas Top Dems blast administration's proposed ObamaCare changes MORE (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on House Commerce Committee and an outspoken critic of Pai, confirmed the report in a statement and praised the move.

"For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai's relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting," Pallone said.

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"I am particularly concerned about reports that Chairman Pai may have coordinated with Sinclair to time a series of commission actions to benefit the company," he continued. "I am grateful to the FCC's Inspector General that he has decided to take up this important investigation."

Conservative-leaning Sinclair is proposing a takeover of Tribune Media. The combined local television stations would be able to reach more than two-thirds of the country’s television audience. Broadcasters are currently capped at 39 percent.

Pai’s critics have noted that he has pushed through a number of deregulatory proposals that appear to clear obstacles from Sinclair’s proposed expansion.

Last November, Pallone and Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCohen to testify before Senate Intel on Tuesday Five takeaways from McCabe’s allegations against Trump Jordan says Oversight should be more focused on McCabe, Rosenstein ahead of Cohen testimony MORE (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to FCC Inspector General David L. Hunt, urging him to look into Pai's deregulatory spree and whether it was designed to clear roadblocks for the merger.

They pointed to a list of actions the agency has taken under Pai's chairmanship that raised their suspicions. In April of last year, the FCC voted to reinstate a recently-repealed rule that would give broadcast owners a discount to help them stay under the 39-percent ownership limit. And in November, the Republican majority rolled back more ownership restrictions, including one limiting the number of stations a single company can own certain markets.

Pai's office declined to comment on the report, but the chairman has denied his deregulatory agenda was intended to benefit any one company. He's also accused Democrats of singling out Sinclair for criticism because of its editorial leanings.

An FCC spokesman said in a statement that allegations that Pai has shown favoritism toward Sinclair are "absurd," noting that the FCC recently handed the broadcaster a $13.4 million fine.

“Moreover, Chairman Pai has for many years called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations to match the realities of the modern marketplace," the spokesman said. 

"The Chairman’s actions on these issues have been consistent with his long-held views," the statement continued. "Considering the strong case for modernizing these rules, it's not surprising that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of the reforms that the FCC has adopted.”

This story was updated at 12:16 p.m.