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Meredith Baker’s Exit from NTIA Causes Concern

Digital-TV-transition watchers could be forgiven for concluding that running the crucial DTV-to-analog converter-box-coupon program is like that time-bomb game where the object is not to be left holding it when the thing goes off.

B&C learned Thursday that acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration head Meredith Atwell Baker, who had only been in the post since Thanksgiving, is getting ready to leave.

The White House is said to be preparing to nominate Neil Patel, an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, to head the NTIA through the end of the president’s term.

Sources said Baker was exiting because she was not going to get the nomination to replace John Kneuer as full-time head of the agency and of the $1.5 billion coupon program that is part of the transition to digital TV in February 2009.

The NTIA declined comment on the reason behind the departure, simply confirming that she was planning to exit but not without helping with another transition, her own.

"Meredith Baker has been talking with Commerce Department officials for months about her desire to leave," confirmed NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak. “There is no timetable for her departure, and she is going to ensure a smooth transition to her future replacement."

A source familiar with her decision said she expressed her desire to make sure the program was left in good hands and so would not be leaving immediately. “I don’t expect her to be gone by March 15 or anything like that,” the source added.

Kneuer left abruptly just before Thanksgiving and only six weeks or so before the kickoff of the coupon program Jan. 1. Baker, who had been working on the coupon program at the NTIA for several years, was immediately named acting NTIA head and got good reviews inside the agency and on Capitol Hill for being someone they could work with.

The news of Baker’s exit broke only 10 days after the NTIA began processing the coupon requests. That date was marked by an event in Washington, D.C., where, somewhat surprisingly at the time, Baker did not speak, although her boss, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, did.

Democratic legislators have complained that administration officials won’t be left holding the DTV-transition time bomb if something goes wrong when it goes off Feb. 17, 2009. The departures of Baker and Kneuer did nothing to assuage those fears.

"I’m pleased that Ms. Baker is committed to remaining at the NTIA until a replacement is confirmed,” said Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. “I urge the president to nominate a well-qualified replacement who is knowledgeable about the transition and whose arrival will not cause any disruptions at this critical time in the transition.”

Andrew J. Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, was less sanguine about the prospects, saying, "I'm very concerned. It is evident that the administration places a low priority on the DTV transition. Otherwise, it would ensure that there was consistency of leadership and adequate resources devoted to those tasks.”

That concern was echoed by Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps: “I don't see how changing NTIA leadership one more time does anything to inspire confidence or to move us toward the kind of integrated private-public partnership we need to ensure a smooth DTV transition," he told B&C.

It is not surprising for presidential appointees to start heading for the exit as the president’s term winds down. For example, Federal Trade Commission chairman Deborah Platt Majoras announced Thursday that she would exit at the end of March to join Procter & Gamble as vice president and general counsel in Cincinnati.

But Baker’s exit appeared to be more a case of the White House’s decision not to nominate her to the post -- a decision that had some NTIA watchers in Washington, D.C., shaking their heads last week.