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Powell Hire Questioned on Capitol Hill

For the past year, Federal Communications Commission Democrat Jonathan Adelstein has been clobbering Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell over mergers, media ownership and broadcast indecency.

Powell's response? On Tuesday, he named Adelstein chief of staff Lisa M. Zaina CEO of Universal Service Administrative Co., which oversees the annual flow of $2.25 billion in taxpayer money to subsidize affordable Internet access to schools and libraries across the country.

The so-called e-rate program was established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Powell named a Democrat to head USAC at a time when the e-rate is being audited by the General Accounting Office and investigated by the House Commerce Committee for waste, fraud and abuse tolling in the millions of dollars.

"We are knee-deep in our investigation and expect to hold hearings on the e-rate mess later this spring. We have already identified tens of millions of dollars of fraud, waste and abuse in the program," House Commerce Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said Thursday.

Since becoming chairman in January 2001, Powell has hired Democrats with Clinton administration ties to fill key posts at the FCC.

John Rogovin, the agency’s general counsel, served in the Justice Department under Janet Reno. Powell's top wireless-communications adviser, Sheryl Wilkerson, was top aide to Democratic FCC chairmen Reed Hundt and William Kennard.

Powell's decision to put Zaina in charge of USAC now didn't go unnoticed by House Commerce Committee chairman Billy Tauzin's (R-La.) staff.

"It is curious. You can say Republicans on Capitol Hill find it a curious hire," said Johnson, who didn't elaborate.

Powell's chief of staff, Bryan Tramont, responded that Powell makes hiring decisions based on talent, and not political affiliation.

"We select the most qualified people. We're a bipartisan agency. Universal service and it administration are a bipartisan matter. Lisa was a well-qualified candidate, so she was picked," Tramont said.