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House Republicans Press FCC on IG Independence

The Republican leadership of the House Energy & Commerce Committee is challenging the independence of the FCC Inspector General's (IG) office following its finding that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler did not leak information about the existence of a compromise on Lifeline subsidy reforms in order to blow up the deal.

E&C Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) want the FCC to supply some specific information about the "interdependence" of the FCC and IG, they said in a letter to IG David Hunt.

“In order to address our committee’s concerns regarding the independence of the FCC’s Office of Inspector General and the impact on accountability in the FCC’s decision-making and management, we request… information necessary to understand the practical and working relationship between the Office of the Chairman and the Inspector General.”

The IG report found that Wheeler did leak the information, but that he had the authority to make nonpublic information public, and that there was no evidence of a motive beyond what FCC spokesperson Shannon Gilson, who said she had recommended the chairman release the info, said was "providing the press with information about the compromise Lifeline proposal to address the confusion that was already surrounding the item in the media."

The IG's office said it "found no evidence that the information was provided to the press in an attempt to unduly influence the outcome of the vote."

The Letter from Upton and Walden addresses their concerns more generally, citing a number of issues including what they said was the possible sharing of IG drafts and audits with the chairman's office before they were finalized, the FCC Office of Human Resources, a  "direct report" to the chairman's office, participating in IG hiring decisions, the apparent absence of IG reports from the FCC Web site.

The Republican legislators said that there is "growing concern that because the FCC Inspector General is appointed by, reports to, and is under the general supervision of the chairman of the commission that the IG is not free to provide the honest and independent criticism that is critical to the performance of the IG's oversight."

They want to know, among other things, what mechanisms are in place to ensure IG independence, what role the chairman plays in budgeting, drafting releases, and copies of all communications between the FCC and IG's office since 2012.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who requested the IG investigation, was also not happy, particularly with the finding that the chairman was free to leak the information.

“The findings by the inspector general reveal significant dysfunction and a lack of transparency at the FCC,” he said after the committee circulated the report publicly. “Under the agency’s current interpretation, the FCC chairman is free to leak cherry-picked details about proceedings and deliberations while other commissioners are gagged and even kept in the dark about decisions by the chairman to approve such leaks. Worse yet, the FCC is not keeping a record of decisions by the chairman to disclose non-public information. This report is yet another indication of increased partisanship and dysfunction at the FCC that underscores the need for Congress to reform how the agency does business.”

Wheeler's office declined to comment on the Upton/Walden letter.