Leaks To Lobbyists Threaten 'Fairness And Transparency' At FCC

Wednesday, October 3rd 2007, 7:29 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Federal Communications Commission is doing a swell job communicating with lobbyists, but with the public? Not so good, according to a government report.

The Government Accountability Office says the agency tips off some people with business before the commission in advance about what items are coming up for a vote, usually before the public is notified.

``Situations where some, but not all, stakeholders know what FCC is considering for an upcoming vote undermine the fairness and transparency of the process and constitute a violation of FCC's rules,'' the GAO said.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications and the Internet subcommittee, requested the GAO report more than a year ago. It was to be made available Wednesday.

``The public deserves to know that these decisions are made on the up and up with no unfair advantages to one side,'' he said of the report's findings.

The FCC is an independent agency created by Congress in 1934 to oversee the nation's airwaves and regulate telecommunications services. Information on its upcoming actions can move stock prices and, at times, affect entire markets.

The report says some people at the agency warn lobbyists when a particular issue is about to come up for a vote. The commission chairman usually circulates an item for vote three weeks before a meeting. One week before the meeting, the agenda is published, and lobbying is banned.

That allows a window of opportunity for lobbyists who ``time their lobbying efforts to maximize their impact.''

``It's like a 3-point shot at the buzzer,'' Markey said.

The report says ``this imbalance of information is not the intended result of the Communications Act and it runs contrary to the principles of transparency and equal opportunity for participation established by law and to FCC's own rules that govern rulemaking.''

David Fiske, director of media relations at the agency, said in an interview that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin ``has always been very open and transparent'' about what issues are coming to a vote and that the commission is ``exploring ways in which we can make our processes even more open and transparent.''

Investigators reviewed a period from 2002 to 2006 and focused on four proceedings in particular. They concluded that the FCC ``generally followed its rulemaking process'' except for how it handled confidential information.

One representative of ``a large organization that is involved in numerous rulemakings'' said FCC staff will tell him what items are scheduled for a vote several days before the agenda is released. The report did not identify the person.

Not everyone benefits from the heads up, however.

Some advocates, the report said, ``who generally represent consumer and public interest groups, told us they do not know when FCC is about to vote on a rulemaking or when it would be best to meet with FCC staff to make their arguments.''

Fiske disputed the characterization, saying the commission ``actively reaches out and works with consumer and public interest groups, not only industry.''

The GAO recommends that the agency develop procedures to make sure confidential information stays confidential and to make sure when leaks do happen, that ``a series of actions will occur'' such as a referral to the agency's inspector general.

The agency did not comment on a draft version of the report itself and ``took no position on our recommendation,'' the GAO said. Markey said the FCC should take ``immediate steps to protect the integrity of the rule-making process.''