Ralph Nader Letter to FCC Inspector General – H. Walker Feaster III,
May 29, 2003
H. Walker Feaster III
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C., 20554
Dear Mr. Feaster:
By now you have read in detail, no doubt, what you and your office have sensed. The Center for Public Integrity has assembled from FCC travel records data revealing that industry groups and companies regulated by the FCC have paid, during the past eight years, for more than 2,500 junkets — providing both travel, lodging and entertainment here and abroad worth $2.8 million for FCC Commissioners and top staff.
In the context of the upcoming June 2, 2003 decision by a split group of FCC Commissioners that would dramatically ease concentration of ownership and cross-ownership rules within and between radio, television and newspaper properties, this chronic, private, unseen, plush and intensive fraternizing between the regulators and the regulated takes on new and disturbing meanings.
This is a request that the Office of Inspector General, which you head, initiate an investigation of this institutionalized payola and request a postponement of the June 2 decision until you have completed your inquiries, established your findings and produced a public report with your recommendations. The FCC is beyond the stage of mere appearance of impropriety — that is already very clear from the travel records, the posh hotels, the wining and dining, and the exclusive access to FCC officials and personal face time in private that these corporate executives and their corporate regulatees have received. This broad trail is at your beck and call. What is now needed is for the OIG to follow the trail and ascertain whether violations of laws, rules and practices have occurred regarding proceedings and other matters and purviews under the commission.
Your mandate includes “keeping the Chairman, Commissioners, and the Congress fully informed about problems and deficiencies at the agency.”
Here are some suggestions as to why you should conduct this investigation:
1. For fifty years, FCC Commissioners and top staff have left the agency, at the end of their tour, and gone in droves to the broadcast, cable and telecommunications industries, either as well-paid executives, consultants or outside attorneys serving their clients.
Question: Were there any improper discussions of job requests and/or job offers at these rendezvous?
2. Routinely, it is alleged by the FCC that junkets are cleared by the ethics section of the FCC’s General Counsel’s Office.
Question: Are these clearances, with their rationale, in written form and were there any denials in writing that would inform you (and the public) as to the leniency or specific junket rejections from this modest oversight process within the Commission?
Note: Even given the de minimus gift allowance under FCC rules and even given the cautious leeway for receiving freebies at events, it is doubtful that the free-attendance provision has not been violated on various occasions, given its self-defined boundaries. (see Erwin G. Krasnow et al. — co authors of Federal Communications Commission Lobbying, CCH Inc., 2001)
Note: Former FCC Commissioner, Nicholas Johnson (1966 — 1973), refused any gifts, lunches or other gratuities from companies or trade groups having dealings with the Commission. He often declared that if travel to events was needed for “official business,” then the FCC should pay expenses. If being at the event was not “official business,” he said he had no business being there at all.
Consequently, he did not attend events that were not paid for by the FCC budget. (Doesn’t that display of ethics make you a bit nostalgic for yesteryear?) Ann Brown, former chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission followed a similar practice.
3. Ex Parte rules are very vulnerable to violation during the rapid informal exchanges at these junkets between FCC officials and industry lobbyists. For brevity’s sake, I refer you to the FCC’s Fact Sheet on Ex Parte Rules (July 2001). One cannot read these rules without being motivated to find out what goes on at these hotel and convention center junkets often at remote or secluded places where swimming pools, drinks, golf courses and other playgrounds offer opportunities for ex parte violations that would curl your hair. (Remember the adage — “if it quacks like a duckð”) The OIG cannot possibly claim that these officials have no burden to disclose and report any improprieties. Your inquiry would determine whether there have been such reports and whether the situation is such that you could not find out about violations even if you wanted to do so. See pt. 10 and pt. 12 of the above noted Fact Sheet.
4. Commission rules presuppose certain empirical frameworks which do not exist in the environment of these junkets. Your recommendations can take into account these “off the screen” locales of communication between regulators and regulatees.
FCC standards, it can be reasonably argued, must be of an exceptional stringency. The Commission is allocating or giving away or regulating public assets and their uses by private, profit seeking corporations. Many of these companies are given monopoly licenses over their broadcast spectrum or through their cable properties possess monopoly contracts. The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, is permeated with references to the public interest standard known as the “public convenience, interest or necessity.” (See R. Nader and C. Riley, “Oh Say Can You See: A Broadcast Network for the Audience,” The Journal of Law and Politics, Fall 1988)
Moreover, FCC history demonstrates that when the Commission’s reins on protecting the public’s property in the public airwaves are loosened, they almost never are retightened.
The FCC’s “Inspector General reports to, and is under the general supervision, of the FCC Chair,” says your home page. I trust that you will not interpret this as a rigorous subservience to the Chairman’s agenda and politics. The interested public knows that the federal law establishing inspector generals at departments and agencies was based on the IGs being rigorously independent.
Let us all hope that you will pursue this investigation and not be embarrassed by any subsequent disclosures of corruption at these gatherings which may have been prevented by performance of your duties. As you well know, the eyes of many Americans and citizen groups will be on the FCC and FCC officials as never before.
By the way, have you or your staff ever taken any junkets or non-de minimus gifts from regulatees or trade groups composed of companies subject to FCC proceedings, matters or jurisdictions?
Thank you for your considered attentiveness.
PO BOX 19367
Washington, DC 20036