The federal House Energy and Commerce Committee announced that it has initiated a "formal investigation" into the regulatory procedures of the Federal Communications Commission.
In a stern letter signed by Committee Chair John Dingell (D-Mich.), and ranking minority member Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the Committee advised FCC Chair Kevin Martin that the purpose of the investigation is "to determine if [the FCC's procedures] are being conducted in a fair, open, efficient, and transparent manner."
Also signing the letter were Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the chair and ranking minority member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
The representatives expressed concern over what they perceive as "a growing number of allegations received by the Committee relating to management practices that may adversely affect the agency's operation."
Martin was instructed to inform all FCC employees of their right to provide information to Congress, reminded that it is a violation of federal law to punish whistleblowers, and ordered to preserve all electronic records of the FCC.
"House Commerce oversight is essential to correct the 'behind-the-chairman's-door' deal-making at the FCC," said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Historically, it has taken pressure by media-reform-minded members of Congress to have the Commission take more seriously public-interest issues, such as media ownership."
Chester went on to say that Martin has been placed "on notice" that the key oversight committee intends to make sure he conducts his decision-making "in an open and accountable process."
Second Critical Letter
This week's letter from Dingell and Barton is the second critical letter sent from the Committee to the Commission in the last month. In early December, Dingell notified Martin that the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations would be looking into how the FCC had handled several recent issues, including most notably the relaxation of media-ownership rules.
"I am rapidly losing confidence," Dingell wrote, "that the Commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner." He suggested that Martin had failed to allow enough time for public comment, had not published the proposed changes to the media-ownership rules in advance of the vote, and, most seriously, had withheld potentially relevant data from his fellow commissioners.
In an undated reply a short time later, Martin dismissed Dingell's concerns regarding the operation of the Commission and assured him that all appropriate procedures are being followed.
Chester said that he welcomes further investigation by the Energy and Commerce Committee. "Sadly, almost every chairman's first priority is serving the interests of industry -- not the average citizen," Chester said.
"Chairman Dingell's oversight serves as a powerful wake-up call for Martin and other commissioners," Chester added. "They can't only act as if they are card-carrying members of the new media-monopoly club."
The Committee's most recent letter does not set out a timeline for the investigation or hearings, and the Committee's press office was unavailable for comment.