Democratic Report Slams FCC’s Martin

A House committee staff report released last Tuesday slammed the management practices of Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, claiming he suppressed information, abused his power, and created a climate of fear by demoting FCC workers over policy disputes.

“The committee staff report details some of the most egregious abuses of power, suppression of information and manipulation of data under chairman Martin’s leadership,” said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight Investigations.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, did not endorse the findings, saying through an aide that the report failed to focus on “weightier matters” than Martin’s brusque treatment of career FCC workers with whom he clashed.

Stupak’s panel headed a yearlong probe of the Martin FCC, largely triggered by Martin’s ill-fated November 2007 attempt to adopt a report that would have established the need for more regulation of cable operators and programmers.

The 110-page report, “Deception and Distrust: The FCC Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin,” included 84 pages of e-mail messages, memos and letters and uncovered perhaps $100 million in excessive funding of a telecommunications program for the deaf; alleged White House involvement in Liberty Media’s bid to take control of DirecTV; and accused Martin’s hand-picked chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, Derek Poarch, of routinely violating government travel regulations.

E-mail messages also showed that in 2005, then-Martin aide Catherine Bohigian pressured a subordinate into producing a report that concluded that the sale of cable channels on a la carte basis could save some consumers money. A November 2004 FCC report under chairman Michael Powell had concluded the opposite.

“Any of these findings, individually, are cause for concern,” Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) said in a statement. “Together, the findings suggest that, in recent years, the FCC has operated in a dysfunctional manner and [agency] business has suffered as a result.”

The report said the FCC in September 2007 held up the Liberty-DirecTV deal until DirecTV agreed to provide the White House with local TV signals from around the country, a request that implicated copyright laws and probably required permission from the local stations involved.

The FCC probe started as a bipartisan effort, with key support from Barton, but somewhere along the way, bipartisan comity broke down.

“A congressional investigation has established that the chairman of the FCC doesn’t play well with others,” said Larry Neal, the committee’s deputy Republican staff director. “The inquiry was supposed to pin down some weightier matters, but evidently that didn’t pan out. So we have this heavy-duty report on pushiness right here in Washington, D.C. of all places.”

“Republicans thought this was going to be a serious look into the real problems at the FCC, but it turned out to be about a lack of sweetness and gentility there, instead,” he added. “That’s a poor substitute.”

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny said Martin’s leadership practices were faithful to traditions established by his Republican and Democratic predecessors.

“It appears that the committee did not find or conclude that there were any violations of rules, laws or procedures following a year-long investigation,” Kenney said. “Chairman Martin has followed the same procedures that have been followed for the past 20 years by FCC chairmen, both Democratic and Republican alike.”