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FCC Reforms Ex Parte Rules

Lobbyists will have to give up more info on their pitches to regulators.

The FCC will now require documentation of all ex parte meetings and other oral communications between outside parties and commission staffers on issues under its consideration, not just those dealing with new information or new arguments, and the enforcement bureau will be empowered to impose fines for violations.

An ex parte contact is one between FCC staffers and one side of an issue currently being considered in a commission docket, say, with cable industry lobbyists on the AllVid proposal, or Comcast/NBCU opponents while the FCC's deal review was still in progress.

The FCC put off for another day the issue of whether to require fuller disclosure of the "real parties in interest" to ex parte meetings, meaning what other parties those parties they may be representing. Instead it issued a notice of further inquiry seeking more comment on that question.

But under the rule changes that were adopted, ex parte notices must now include more information about the meetings, a summary of the issues or citations for meetings about information that is not new, and a list of everyone in the meeting, which were not previously a requirement.

That came in an order released Wednesday. "This reform should enable those participating in our proceedings as well as those observing them to better identify and understand the issues being debated before the Commission," the FCC order said. It will also make those disclosures easier for the public to find on the FCC web site.

"[O]pen and transparent decision-making requires that interested parties, and the public, have complete information about who is engaging in ex parte discussions in pending proceedings and what arguments and showings are being made," the commission said.

The commission said it would not routinely make new media comments--comments on its blogs, for instance--a part of the official record.

The FCC also sought input in the further notice about whether to apply different disclosure rules to trade associations or public interest groups. The National Cable & Telecommunications had asked the FCC not to adopt any new disclosure requirement until it had defined a problem with lack of such disclosure, and has advised the commission to come up with a guide to what level of disclosure should be required of different entities. NAB agreed, and also agreed that associations should not be required to include every company in their roster as parties of interest.

Andrew Schwartzman, of Media Access Project, which sought ex parte reforms, called the order a major advance in transparency."It will surely improve public confidence in the FCC's actions, and it will help the press corps do its job of informing the public. I salute Commissioner [Michael] Copps for starting the process and the Chairman for finishing it."

"I am confident that the reforms we make to our ex parte rules-combined with rigorous enforcement-will usher in a new era of transparency, openness and credibility to our work.," said Copps of the order.