Trump FCC Commissioners Face Federal Investigations Over Ethics Violations

Trump-appointed FCC Commissioners (l-r) Michael O'Rielly and Ajit Pai.
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Trump-appointed FCC Commissioners (l-r) Michael O'Rielly and Ajit Pai.
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Trump-appointed FCC Commissioners (l-r) Michael O’Rielly and Ajit Pai. Both face separate accusations of impropriety.

FCC Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Ajit Pai now face serious allegations over improper conduct, ethics violations, and even bribery.  Multiple federal investigations are now expected to widen outside of an internal FCC review.

As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) girds through a contentious battle over net neutrality, two of its top officials are now facing investigations over impropriety and potentially criminal behavior.   Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Ajit Pai (pictured above) are both Trump appointments.

A formal investigation into potentially criminal corruption involving Ajit Pai has been previously disclosed.  That investigation, first reported on February 15th, is likely to be expanded to include potential ethics violations involving gift(s) from the NRA.

Separately, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has already  initiated a broader campaign into a number of FCC violations, according to details shared by the FCC itself with Digital Music News (more on that below).  At this stage, we’re unclear of the exact nature of the GAO investigation.

Those investigations are now likely to be expanded in light of numerous ethics violations.

Just last week, Pai accepted a pricey handmade musket from the NRA, part of a high-profile ceremony at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that honored Pai with the Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award.  Pai was praised by the organization for ‘saving the internet’ and ‘preserving your freedom of speech rights’.

During the ceremony, Pai willingly accepted the pricey, antique rifle, whose cost is estimated in the thousands of dollars.

According to federal law, no official at a U.S. agency is allowed to accept a gift exceeding $200 from a group that stands to benefit from that rulings of that agency.  Just recently, word leaked that Amazon was removing NRAtv from its streaming channel selection, a move that could draw FCC scrutiny.  Pai has indicated that the FCC will not intervene, though the Commissioner has considerable power to penalize Amazon and other online companies in other ways.

Accordingly, acceptance of the gift may have violated a very clear FCC Standards of Conduct rule stating:

If the award or any item incident to the award is in the form of cash or an investment interest, or if the aggregate value of the award and any item incident to the award, other than free attendance to the event provided to the employee and to members of the employee’s family by the sponsor of the event, exceeds $200, the agency ethics official has made a written determination that the award is made as part of an established program of recognition.

In fact, the musket may also qualify as a bribe, which constitutes a criminal ethics violation.  The NRA lobbied on the issue of net neutrality, specifically for the FCC’s rollback.

The Conduct violation would expand an earlier investigation involving suspicious meetings between Pai and Sinclair Broadcasting.

+ February 15th: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Faces Internal Investigation Over Alleged Corruption

The suspicions arose following a curious string of events.  First, the Pai-led FCC radically loosened ownership rules for television conglomerates in the United States.  A few weeks later, Sinclair Broadcasting announced a massive, $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media.  That deal, which would easily create the largest television broadcaster in the US, was impossible under previous FCC rules.

The New York Times then started chronicling a series of suspicious meetings between Pai and top Sinclair executives leading up the rules change.  That triggered an internal FCC investigation, as well as heightened scrutiny from Congress.  In fact, a Congressional investigation has been ongoing since December, with ethical and potentially criminal bribery allegations being examined.

House Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) first informed the New York Times of that investigation.  “For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” Pallone told the Times.

Earlier this morning, Pai ‘absolutely’ denied any wrongdoing involving Sinclair, including allegations of criminal bribery.

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The most likely result of an internal FCC investigation is that Pai will be cleared (go figure).  But Pallone and other Democrats are now likely to trigger a separate investigation given the multiple ethics and bribery allegations.  That would not only include actions by Pai, but also fellow FCC Commissioner (and Trump appointee) Michael O’Rielly.

The investigation surrounding Michael O’Rielly will focus on violations of the U.S. Hatch Act.

The violation also occurred at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where O’Rielly openly endorsed President Donald Trump.  The Hatch Act explicitly prohibits any federal agency officer from openly endorsing a political candidate or politician.  “The Hatch Act explicitly prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty,” watchdog agency American Oversight stated.

“O’Rielly was appearing at CPAC in his official capacity as a commissioner of the FCC — the government body which oversees regulation of the news media and the internet — and his call for Trump’s reelection violated direct guidance issued by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) regarding federal employees and President Trump.”

At present, a formal investigation into the Hatch Act violation has not been initiated — either inside or outside the FCC.

Separately, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) is actively investigating issues of Russian interference in the FCC’s net neutrality decision-making process.

The Russians Interfered In the Net Neutrality Repeal, a Top FCC Official Admits

The admission was made to Digital Music News this week by FCC Chief of Staff Travis Litman.  “We are unaware of any investigation on the FCC’s behalf into this matter, though the GAO [General Accounting Office] has committed to investigate other problematic aspects of the FCC’s record,” Litman emailed.

That strongly suggests a broader GAO investigation, including those pertaining to both O’Rielly and Pai.  Litman didn’t elaborate on the scope of the GAO investigation.

The issue of Russian interference was highlighted by yet-another FCC Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel.  Amazingly, Rosenworcel indicated that Russian interference was acknowledged within the FCC, but absolutely nothing was being done about it.  Rosenworcel, who voted to maintain net neutrality protections, was recently reappointed by Trump, raising serious questions on why the Commissioner has failed to investigate the blatant interference (among other glaring problems).

Litman subsequently attempted to retract his statement, noting that the email was sent ‘on background’.  But that wasn’t clarified during the initial email exchange.