FCC defends GOP commissioners' appearance at CPAC

FCC defends GOP commissioners' appearance at CPAC
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) top lawyer says that Republican commissioners who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier this year did not violate any ethics rules.

FCC General Counsel Thomas Johnson Jr. said that the appearance by the three GOP commissioners was in line with ethics requirements because even though CPAC is an event focused on conservative viewpoints, it’s "not affiliated with any one political party," Johnson wrote in a letter obtained by The Hill that was sent last week to Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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“The Commissioners' ability to accept prominent speaking engagements like this one helps promote transparency and accountability and encourages public participation and interest in Commission rulemakings, without contravening applicable ethics obligations,” Johnson wrote. 

Democrats had complained about the GOP commissioners' presence at CPAC.   

Reps. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneKey House and Senate health leaders reach deal to stop surprise medical bills Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills Key negotiator says deal close on surprise medical bills legislation MORE (D-N.J.) and Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleDemocrats demand FCC act over leak of phone location data Hillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference Reddit, Google to testify before House panel on tech's legal protections MORE (D-Pa.), in a letter to the three Republican commissioners who attended the event in January, argued that their appearance raised concerns about their fitness to lead an independent agency. The letter included a list of questions about whether they had spent taxpayer money on the event or consulted ethics officials ahead of time.

CPAC 4.16.2018 

 

In a statement to The Hill, Pallone blasted Johnson’s letter, accusing the Republicans of ducking congressional oversight of their “increasingly political actions.”

“We asked the Commissioners legitimate questions and expected them to respond, not to hide behind their lawyer,” Pallone said. “The general counsel did not provide any legal reason why the Commissioners could not respond, and we still expect the Commissioners to answer our questions."

An FCC spokeswoman was not immediately able to comment.

Johnson argued in his letter that past commissioners had appeared at events hosted by groups on both the left and right, including the Center for American Progress, the Heritage Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute. Such appearances don't violate ethics laws like the Hatch Act, Johnson wrote, because those organizations aren't affiliated with a political party.

"Because participation at CPAC is not political activity, as defined by the Hatch Act, there was no need for any Commissioner to abide by the limitations that the Act places on the use of appropriated funds, official staff, or agency resources in connection with such activity," reads the letter, dated April 16.

Ahead of the CPAC panel event, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was given a courage award by the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union — the organization that hosts CPAC — for his efforts to repeal the FCC’s net neutrality rules under withering criticism. Pai later declined the award, citing the advice of agency ethics officials.