Panel to probe FCC chairman's leadership

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday announced a bipartisan investigation into charges that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has short-circuited the commission's regulatory procedures and made the process less transparent to advance various initiatives.

In a letter to Martin, Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., and ranking Republican Joe Barton of Texas said they have formalized an unofficial inquiry outlined in a previous letter Dingell sent to the regulatory chief.

On Dec. 3, Dingell wrote that Martin appeared to have bypassed procedures designed to ensure transparency in FCC decisions, suggesting "a larger breakdown at the agency." Dingell pointed to the commission's failure to post proposed rules in time to allow public comment or to give commissioners likely to dissent time to review the drafts.

The participation of committee Republicans indicates increasing bipartisan discontent with Martin, who has been under fire from commission Democrats and from Congress for his effort to relax media-ownership rules and for pushing through a 3-2 vote Dec. 18 on the issue.

Reps. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., last month introduced companion bills to void the change, which permits newspapers to combine with television or radio stations in the country's top 20 markets.

Critics also have attacked Martin for announcing plans through the media and for providing little information to fellow commissioners to back proposed rule changes.

The Energy and Commerce probe is being conducted jointly by the full committee and its Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, chaired by Bart Stupak, D-Mich.

The Dingell-Barton letter said the committee will issue "a comprehensive document request in the near future" and will hold a hearing this year. The letter said the probe "will also address a growing number of allegations received by the committee relating to management practices that may adversely affect the agency's operation."

The letter did not elaborate on the allegations. But it instructs Martin to notify all FCC employees of their right to communicate with Congress and warns the agency not to retaliate against whistleblowers. It asked Martin to preserve all electronic records related to committee work.

An FCC spokesman declined to comment on the investigation but pointed to Martin's written response to Dingell's Dec. 3 letter. In that letter, Martin defended his tenure, saying he has given commissioners enough time and information to review proposals. "I already provide my fellow commissioners all of the relevant data and analysis upon which a proposed order or rule is based," Martin wrote.

But he acknowledged one instance in which he regretted not giving commissioners enough information to justify his position on a rule change affecting the cable industry.

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