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House Dems Pound Martin

House Democrats delivered a parting shot at FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last week, giving him Oliver Stone-like treatment in a report provocatively titled “Deception and Distrust: The Federal Communications Commission Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin.”

But with Martin exiting the Big Chair in a few weeks, the effect is more of a finger-wag from the Democrats who signed on to the report and an indictment of management style rather than a finding of illegality or ethics violations. A top Republican committee staffer, saying he was delegated to speak for the minority, suggested it was much ado about little.

Still, the verbiage was rough. Martin's management style was roundly criticized as an “abuse of power,” including criticisms that the commission had not carried out some “important responsibilities.” The report said that the regulatory process was not open and transparent—a frequent criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike—and that Martin's style is heavy-handed and not collegial. One of the key findings was that the chairman had manipulated data in a report that supported an a la carte business model for cable and rebutted an earlier FCC report critical of that model.

An FCC official speaking for Martin countered that the chairman had not agreed with the initial a la carte report “from the day it came out.” That report, commissioned by his predecessor, Michael Powell, had found problems with the a la carte business model. “There were some assumptions in the initial report that didn't make sense to him,” the official said, explaining why Martin was expecting a different result the second time around.

The investigation also concluded that Martin had manipulated data to make it appear that cable industry penetration had reached a threshold for re-regulation.

Rep Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce subcommittee that is conducting the investigation, says Martin appeared to have an anti-cable agenda, a charge frequently leveled. Martin carried out that agenda, according to the subcommittee report, by “manipulating or suppressing reports, data and information.”

Stupak told reporters last week at a press conference that the subcommittee had found nothing criminal (though he added “yet,” for effect). He said that allegations were still coming in and that some people weren't willing to talk while Martin was still in power.

That was a point the FCC latched onto. “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,” Martin spokesman Rob Kenny said last week. “Chairman Martin has followed the same procedures that have been followed for the past 20 years by FCC Chairmen, both Democrat and Republican alike.”

Kenny added that Martin was not going to apologize for “fighting to lower exorbitantly high cable rates that consumers are forced to pay.”

Stupak said that though the investigation was ongoing, he wanted to release the staff report now to give the new administration and its pick for FCC chairman a blueprint of what not to do. He didn't rule out trying to resume hearings in the new session of Congress, and said a report had been given to incumbent Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Stupak did not advocate any legislation to remedy the problems the subcommittee found with FCC procedures. Instead, he said he hoped it would lead to public policy changes by a new FCC chairman. He cited a legislative calendar likely crowded with issues like the economy, health care and the war in Iraq as one reason the legislative route to FCC reform would not be the quickest way there.

But not everyone was taking aim at Martin, with some suggesting there was more saber-rattling than actual wounds inflicted in the report beyond pointing out a management style that even supporters concede is tough.

“A congressional investigation has established that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission doesn't play well with others,” said Larry Neal, deputy Republican staff director for the Energy & Commerce Committee. “The inquiry was supposed to pin down some weightier matters, but evidently that didn't pan out. So instead, we have an industrial-strength report on the discovery of pushiness right here in Washington, D.C., of all places.”

No Piling On

Media Access Project President Andrew J. Schwartzman, for one, was not ready to pile on. Schwartzman said he does not believe that the FCC is any less transparent now than in the past. “Chairman Martin has been very straightforward with us,” he said, “and I am unwilling to assail his management compared to [that of] his predecessors.”

Schwartzman asserted that “some aspects of this report bear the marks of an angry cable industry retaliating through members of Congress.” While Schwartzman's group has generally opposed Martin on media ownership and indecency regulation, it has supported what it calls his “aggressive regulation” of cable.

A veteran Democrat and communications lobbyist, and a supporter of Martin, said: “Given that they spent a year working on it, there is not much here. It sort of makes you question why all this time and effort on this issue.” He also suspected the cable industry pushed Martin critics to find fault with the FCC.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association had no comment on the report or Schwartzman's characterization, though it is on the record as agreeing that Martin has been aggressively trying to regulate its business.