FCC chief probed over Sinclair-Tribune deal

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

Analysis The chairman of America's broadband watchdog - the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - is under investigation by the regulator's inspector general following a series of decisions that appear to favor one of the country's largest media owners.

Sinclair's chief executive, Chris Ripley, has called Pai's relaxation of media ownership rules a "landmark" development for his company and the industry.

An FCC spokesman called the notion of favouritism by Pai "absurd", and noted that the agency had proposed a record fine against Sinclair for violating sponsorship identification rules.

The FCC's inspector general is conducting an investigation into a series of FCC actions a year ago, and how they benefited Sinclair Broadcast Group in the midst of seeking regulatory approval for its acquisition of Tribune Media. What may have not been, however, is a mega media deal that Pai made possible previous year.

A week after the FCC made the change, Sinclair announced it was buying 42 Tribune Media stations for $3.9 billion.

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Pai has defended the review of the Sinclair-Tribune merger in a letter to House Democrats last fall.

The top U.S. telecom regulator is the object of an internal watchdog probe into the handling of rule changes that benefitted a politically sensitive merger of two major broadcast operators, a lawmaker said Thursday. "The Chairman is sticking to his long-held views, and given the strong case for modernizing these rules, it's not surprising that those who disagree with him would prefer to do whatever they can to distract from the merits of his proposals". One meeting, with Sinclair's executive chairman, took place days before Pai, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, took over as FCC chairman.

The FCC started working on loosening regulations against media consolidation in the early parts of the Trump administration and Pai's time at the helm. Following today's news, these groups are also calling on Pai to recuse himself from all agency matters involving Sinclair.

Pai is no stranger to the communications world.

FCC spokespeople were not available to comment on the status of that investigation or what the threshold for investigating a complaint is, though the FCC web site outlines the factors the IG considers in agreeing to investigate.

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FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, is being investigated by the FCC inspector general for possible collusion with Sinclair Broadcasting, a conservative media group that ran pro-Trump programming during the election. The FCC officials told the aides that they would open an investigation, according to four people with knowledge of the meetings.

"An investigation could cast a cloud over the whole process", said Andrew Schwartzman, a senior fellow at Georgetown Law Center's Institute for Public Representation. David Hunt agreed to conduct the investigation after it was requested in November 2017 by two Democratic lawmakers.

The investigation shouldn't derail or slow the agency's review of its acquisition of Tribune, Bloomberg analyst Matthew Schettenhelm said in a note Thursday.

Information for this article was contributed by Todd Shields of Bloomberg News.

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