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FCC Chairman Abused Power, House Probe Finds

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Congressional Democrats yesterday sharply criticized the Federal Communications Commission, calling it a dysfunctional agency led by a chairman who manipulated and withheld data and reports to advance his own policy positions.

The Democratic lawmakers made their accusations in a 110-page report released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee after a year-long investigation into the management and regulatory practices of FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin.

"Any of these findings, individually, are cause for concern," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said. "Together, the findings suggest that, in recent years, the FCC has operated in a dysfunctional manner and commission business has suffered as a result. It is my hope that the new FCC chairman will find this report instructive and that it will prove useful in helping the commission avoid making the same mistakes."

The report does not, however, state that Martin violated any law.

Aside from "bad manners," the report didn't show clear evidence of wrongdoing, said a former senior Democratic Capitol Hill staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing relationships with House members.

The investigation began as a bipartisan probe, but the report was notably signed only by Dingell and subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). A senior congressional source, who is not authorized to speak on the record, said Republican leaders on the committee were "unwilling to join the report" because they disagreed with the findings.

Minority ranking committee member Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) "supported starting the inquiry into problems at the FCC because there are problems there and the investigation seemed serious. But it didn't turn out that way, and he and his staff are unconvinced that the discovery of a lack of gentility warrants much hoopla, or any hoopla at all," said Larry Neal, deputy Republican staff director of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The report, scathing at certain points, states that Martin pressed staff to rewrite an agency report that didn't support his push for rules allowing cable subscribers to pick and choose channels instead of buying bundled program packages.

It criticized Martin for leading the agency with a closed culture, saying his "heavy-handed, opaque, and non-collegial management style has created distrust, suspicion and turmoil among the five current commissioners."

Employees at the agency told investigators that Martin was a micromanager who instilled feared in staff.

Stupak said "that climate of fear" made it difficult to find witnesses for a hearing on the investigation.

In an interview yesterday, Martin said the report did not find any violations of law or procedure. He added that some criticisms referred to alleged violations that occurred when he wasn't chairman. Claims that he suppressed data from the courts and public on the adverse effects of broadband over powerline, for example, fell under the responsibility of former FCC chairman Michael Powell, Martin said.

"The process we follow here at the commission has been the same for decades and have been under chairmen Republican and Democratic alike," Martin said.

In a conference call with reporters, Stupak went further than the report and said Martin violated the Communications Act by mismanaging a federal fund for telecommunications relay services, a feature for deaf television viewers. Stupak said Martin failed to set reasonable rates and, as a result, deaf viewers were overcharged more than $100 million a year.

Martin said the committee's interpretation of "reasonable" rates differed from the commission's.

"To restore integrity to the FCC and to stimulate economic growth in the telecommunications industry, I believe that President-elect Obama should replace Mr. Martin immediately upon taking office," Stupak said later in an e-mail.

It is expected that Martin, who was appointed by President Bush in March 2005, would be replaced with the inauguration of a new president.

The report also criticized the conduct of the FCC bureau chief for public safety and homeland security, who the committee said routinely violated travel rules by renting "premium class vehicles" at government expense and for charging per diem work fees for days he wasn't working.

"I adamantly and unequivocally deny any impropriety concerning allegations made against me in the report released against me today," bureau chief Derek Poarch said. "I am more than happy to meet with any inspector general and lawyer at any time to discuss and resolve these matters."

Consumer and public advocacy groups lauded the report for pushing transparency in government. Gene Kimmelman, vice president of federal policy at Consumers Union, said that, in the end, the one-year investigation didn't find strong evidence of major malfeasance at the agency.

"The FCC needs to reform and it has needed to for 25 years," Kimmelman said. "Too much is done behind closed doors secretly and it has been that way through Democratic and Republican leadership. So I think a call for reform is welcome, but it's not unique to what's been going for the last several years."

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