WASHINGTON -- Two key House lawmakers announced Monday that they were investigating the Federal Communications Commission, accusing its chairman of "possible abuse of power" and a failure to operate fairly and openly in handling proposed cable TV and media ownership regulations.
"Given several events and proceedings over the past year, I am rapidly losing confidence that the commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner," Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin.
Dingell said he was concerned that the FCC had not made the full text of proposed rules available to the public before it voted on them, and that Martin often had not given other commissioners details of proposals until it was too late for them to fully analyze them.
Martin, a Republican, has faced criticism from lawmakers and fellow commissioners recently for how he has approached the contentious issues of re-regulating the cable TV industry and easing rules on the ownership of newspaper and TV stations in the same city.
Dingell has summoned Martin and the four other FCC commissioners to an oversight hearing Wednesday, and a Senate committee will hear testimony from them next week.
"I have received several complaints from the public and professionals within the communications industry about how Chairman Martin is conducting business at the FCC," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who heads the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that will conduct the investigation. "It is one thing to be an aggressive leader, but many of the allegations indicate possible abuse of power and an attempt to intentionally keep fellow commissioners in the dark."
An FCC spokesman declined to comment Monday.
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At a contentious FCC meeting last week, which was delayed nearly 12 hours by internal wrangling, Republican Commissioners Robert M. McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate, along with Democratic Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, criticized Martin for his handling of a report on cable competition.
Martin had circulated a report that concluded cable TV had passed a key statistical threshold that would allow the FCC to impose new regulations on the industry. But Martin had relied on data from an outside firm that were contradicted by other independent analyses and the agency's own statistics.
McDowell and Adelstein complained that they did not receive the FCC's own data from Martin until the night before the meeting. Adelstein accused Martin of suppressing the information in an attempt "to cook the books."
Adelstein and the FCC's other Democrat, Michael J. Copps, have also accused Martin of trying to rush through a proposal to ease the so-called newspaper and TV cross-ownership rule. The lengthy media ownership review process seemed headed into 2008 when Martin announced in October that he wanted to propose new rules and vote on them by Dec. 18. The move upset some Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and the Senate Commerce Committee will vote on a bill today to force the FCC to wait at least 90 days before such a vote.
Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a media reform group opposed to loosening the rules, welcomed the probe, accusing the FCC of "a rigged process" designed to produce a "predetermined outcome."
"The lack of transparency in FCC matters has left the public with little faith that the agency is acting in their best interest," Scott said.
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times