LOS ANGELES — Ajit Pai, the controversial chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is under investigation by the FCC Inspector General for his ties to a broadcaster, according to lawmakers.
Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings’ (D-MD) requested the investigation, saying that Pai and aides improperly pushed for rule changes to benefit Sinclair Broadcasting in its attempt to acquire Tribune Media.
“For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” Pallone said, in a statement. “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. I am grateful to the FCC’s Inspector General that he has decided to take up this important investigation.”
The FCC and Sinclair didn’t respond to USA TODAY requests for comment.
In April, Pai suggested changing rules about how many stations broadcasters could own. Sinclair followed up with a $3.9 billion deal to snap up Tribune, thanks to the new rules.
The question for the Inspector General: was Pai’s push for the new rules improper and were they timed to benefit Sinclair.
Sinclair is already the largest U.S. broadcaster with 191 stations. Tribune brings another 42 stations to the deal.
Attorneys general in four states — Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island — have come out in opposition to the merger, saying that the bolstered Sinclair would have too much national power and could stifle points of view in local markets.
They’re also concerned that Sinclair, which some critics say forced local stations to provide favorable coverage to then-Republican candidate Donald Trump’s campaign at the expense of rival Hillary Clinton, has too cozy a relationship with the Administration.
Sinclair’s post-merger reach of 72% reach of U.S. homes “is well above the cap that Congress imposed in order to protect viewpoint diversity and localism,” wrote the AG’s to the FCC. A federal mandate prohibits the reach of a single local broadcaster of beyond 39% of U.S. TV homes.
Sinclair has said the merger would allow the new company to better serve local viewers with expanded local coverage, better facilities and more programming, delivered in part by operational efficiencies.
Republican appointee Pai last year led the agency’s successful rollback of Obama-era net neutrality regulations. The decision, which he and the telecom industry said was necessary to remove burdens that hindered investments in broadband, was fought by tech companies and privacy groups and sparked tens of millions of public comments. He has skipped some public appearances because of death threats, according to reports.
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