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Pallone Urges FCC IG to Investigate Pai’s Failure to Disclose Communication with White House on Sinclair-Tribune Merger

Aug 20, 2018
Press Release
Pai Failed to Disclose Recently Revealed Conversation with White House Counsel McGahn at Energy and Commerce Hearing, and Has Not Included it in the Public Docket as Promised at Hearing

Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) today requested that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Inspector General David L. Hunt investigate Chairman Ajit Pai’s failure to disclose a conversation he had with White House Counsel Donald McGahn about the Sinclair-Tribune merger after Pai committed to Pallone during a Committee hearing last month that any such conversations would be disclosed in the public docket.

“Recent statements by Chairman Pai disclosing a call with White House Counsel Donald McGahn regarding the Sinclair-Tribune merger during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing last week — taken together with other relevant events — could very well constitute concealment or coverup and require further investigation,” Pallone wrote in a letter to FCC Inspector General Hunt.     

Pai made the commitment to Pallone during a July 25 Energy and Commerce Committee FCC oversight hearing with all four FCC Commissioners. Specifically, Pallone asked “If the President or anyone in the White House discusses or has discussed the Sinclair-Tribune merger with you or anyone at the FCC, will you commit to disclosing that in the public docket?  Yes or no?” Chairman Pai answered, “Yes, except, Congressman, we have ex parte rules, because this is now a restricted proceeding. We are limited in what information we can receive and what we can put on the record. But consistent with our restricted ex parte rules, we would be happy to accommodate to the extent we can.” A clip of the exchange is available here.

Even though the conversation with McGahn had taken place on July 17, eight days before the hearing, Pai did not disclose his discussion with McGahn and he has not subsequently placed a record of the discussion in the public docket. Since the discussion occurred prior to the adoption of the Sinclair Hearing Designation Order (HDO), Pai’s reference to “restricted ex parte rules” are irrelevant.  These discussions were not subject to restricted disclosure – as is evident from the fact that Chairman Pai discussed the previously omitted call during the August 16 Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing.

Pai also did not disclose the conversation during an August 2 FCC press conference. At the press conference Chairman Pai was asked by a reporter “Has the White House – anyone in the White House, contacted you or your staff about the Sinclair-Tribune merger?” Pai responded that “no one in the White House has contacted us to express a view about the merger.” When the reporter followed-up by asking “What about to ask any questions?” Pai’s response is inaudible and then they quickly moved on to another reporter’s question.

“Given this series of events, it appears that Chairman Pai failed to disclose his discussions with the White House Counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the American people when requested,” Pallone wrote. “Such omissions by the Chairman appear to be material given the scope of the questioning at the July 25 hearing and subsequent engagements.  Moreover, as demonstrated in your recent report regarding the false cyberattack on the Commission’s public comment system, this would not be the first time that the FCC has made inaccurate and misleading statements to Congress.

“For these reasons, I request that your office review this matter to bring the facts surrounding this omission to light,” Pallone continued in his letter to the FCC Inspector General. “I further request that your office review the phone records and emails of all relevant FCC employees and FCC Commissioners to ensure that others at the Commission did not have relevant communications with those at the White House that similarly were not disclosed.”

Pai did not disclose the conversation with McGahn until August 16 when he testified at the Senate FCC oversight hearing. During that hearing, in response to questioning, Chairman Pai publicly disclosed, for the first time, that he had a personal discussion over the phone with White House Counsel Don McGahn regarding the Sinclair-Tribune HDO on July 17, prior to its adoption.

Letter available HERE.

Video clip of Pai’s exchange with Pallone HERE.