The Federal Communications Commission’s internal watchdog is probing whether the agency’s chairman improperly pushed for rule changes that helped clear the way for Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed purchase of Tribune Media Co.’s television stations, a lawmaker said.
The role of Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, has drawn scrutiny in part for his meetings with Sinclair executives since the election of President Donald Trump, who selected Pai to lead the agency. Democrats have said FCC policy this year has seemed to be crafted to benefit the Maryland-based broadcaster, as he pushes to ease barriers to media consolidation.
“For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat who requested the probe, said in a tweet Thursday.
“I am particularly concerned about reports that Chairman Pai may have coordinated with Sinclair to time a series of commission actions to benefit the company,” Pallone said. “I am grateful to the FCC’s inspector general that he has decided to take up this important investigation.”
The inspector general, David Hunt, in a December meeting with congressional staff, confirmed that he was investigating questions lawmakers had raised, said a person who spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the probe are private.
Pallone, of New Jersey, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, in a Nov. 13 letter said Pai’s regulatory moves “when taken in context with reported meetings between the Trump Administration, Sinclair, and Chairman Pai’s office — have raised serious concerns.”
Sinclair has proposed buying 42 Tribune stations in 33 markets in a $3.9 billion deal that would give the conservative-leaning broadcaster a presence in major markets including New York and Chicago. The merger proposed in May is being reviewed by the FCC and the Justice Department.
The investigation shouldn’t derail or slow the agency’s review of its acquisition of Tribune, Bloomberg Intelligence Analyst Matthew Schettenhelm said in a note Thursday.
“It’s doubtful the review will lead to a public report in the short term that would move the FCC’s three Republicans to block the deal,” Schettenhelm said. The agency is waiting for Sinclair to propose divestitures that could resolve concerns about whether the enlarged company would exceed ownership caps, he said.
Brian Hart, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment. Hunt, the inspector general, didn’t immediately return an emailed query. Rebecca Hanson, a Sinclair spokeswoman, declined to comment.
The Free Press policy group that opposes media consolidation called for Pai to recuse himself from deliberations on the merger. Pai’s absence would leave merger approval to be decided by the agency’s remaining members — two Republicans and two Democrats — raising the prospect of a deadlock, and lack of approval.