Two FCC Commissioners Face Federal Investigations Over Ethics Violations, Criminal Bribery Charges

FCC Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Ajit Pai now face serious allegations over improper conduct, ethics violations, and criminal bribery.  Multiple federal investigations are now expected to widen outside an internal FCC review.

As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) girds through a contentious battle over net neutrality, two its top ficials are now facing investigations over impropriety and potentially criminal behavior.   Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Ajit Pai (pictured above), are both Trump appointments.

A formal investigation into potentially criminal corruption involving Ajit Pai has been previously disclosed.  That investigation, first reported on February 15th, is likely to be expanded to include potential ethics violations involving gift(s) from the NRA.

Separately, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has already  initiated a broader campaign into a number FCC violations, according to details shared by the FCC itself with Digital Music News (more on that below).  At this stage, we’re unclear the exact nature the GAO investigation.

Those multiple investigations are now likely to be expanded given an unexpected gift from the NRA.

Just last week, Pai accepted a pricey handmade musket from the NRA, part a high-prile ceremony at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that honored Pai with the Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award.   ‘saving the internet’ and ‘preserving your freedom speech rights’.

During the ceremony, Pai willingly accepted the pricey, customized rifle, whose cost is estimated in the thousands dollars.

According to federal law, no public ficial is allowed to accept a gift exceeding $200 from a group that stands to benefit from that agency.  Just recently, word leaked that Amazon was removing NRAtv from its streaming channel selection, a move that could draw FCC scrutiny.  Pai has indicated that the FCC will not intervene, though the Commissioner has considerable power to penalize Amazon and other online companies in other ways.

Accordingly, acceptance the gift may have triggered a very clear FCC Standards Conduct rule stating:

If the award or any item incident to the award is in the form cash or an investment interest, or if the aggregate value the award and any item incident to the award, other than free attendance to the event provided to the employee and to members the employee’s family by the sponsor the event, exceeds $200, the agency ethics ficial has made a written determination that the award is made as part an established program recognition.

In fact, the musket may qualify as a bribe, which constitutes a criminal ethics violation.  The NRA specifically lobbied on the issue net neutrality, specifically for the FCC’s rollback.

The Conduct violation would expand an earlier investigation involving suspicious meetings between Pai and Sinclair Broadcasting.

+ February 15th: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Faces Internal Investigation Over Alleged Corruption

The suspicions arose following a curious string events.  First, the Pai-led FCC radically loosened ownership rules for television conglomerates in the United States.  A few weeks later, Sinclair Broadcasting announced a massive, $3.9 billion acquisition Tribune Media.  That deal, which would easily create the largest television broadcaster in the US, was impossible under previous FCC rules.

The New York Times then started chronicling a series suspicious meetings between Pai and top Sinclair executives leading up the rules change.  That triggered an internal FCC investigation, as well as heightened scrutiny from Congress.  In fact, that investigation has been ongoing since December, with ethical and potentially criminal bribery allegations being examined.

House Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) first informed the New York Times that investigation.  “For months I have been trying to get to the bottom the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” Pallone told the Times.

Earlier this morning, Pai ‘absolutely’ denied any wrongdoing involving Sinclair, including allegations criminal bribery.

+ FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai Cancels Las Vegas Speech Following Multiple Death Threats

The most likely result an internal FCC investigation is that Pai will be cleared.  But Pallone and other Democrats are now likely to trigger a separate investigation given multiple ethics and bribery allegations.  That would not only include actions by Pai, but also fellow FCC Commissioner (and Trump appointee) Michael O’Rielly.

The investigation surrounding Michael O’Rielly will focus on violations the U.S. Hatch Act.

The violation also occurred at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where O’Rielly openly endorsed President Donald Trump.  The Hatch Act explicitly prohibits any federal agency ficer from openly endorsing a political candidate.  “The Hatch Act explicitly prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty,” watchdog agency American Oversight stated.

“O’Rielly was appearing at CPAC in his ficial capacity as a commissioner the FCC — the government body which oversees regulation the news media and the internet — and his call for Trump’s reelection violated direct guidance issued by the Office Special Counsel (OSC) regarding federal employees and President Trump.”

At present, a formal investigation into the Hatch Act violation has not been initiated — either inside or outside the FCC.

Separately, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) is actively investigating issues Russian interference in the FCC’s net neutrality decision-making process.

+ The Russians Interfered In the Net Neutrality Repeal, a Top FCC Official Admits

The admission was made to Digital Music News this week by FCC Chief Staff Travis Litman.  “We are unaware any investigation on the FCC’s behalf into this matter, though the GAO General Accounting Office] has committed to investigate other problematic aspects the FCC’s record,” Litman emailed.

That strongly suggests a broader GAO investigation, including those pertaining to both O’Rielly and Pai.  Litman didn’t elaborate on the scope the GAO investigation.

The issue Russian interference was highlighted by yet-another FCC Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel.  Amazingly, Rosenworcel indicated that Russian interference was acknowledged within the FCC, but absolutely nothing was being done about it.  Rosenworcel, who voted to maintain net neutrality protections, was recently reappointed by Trump, raising serious questions on why the Commissioner has failed to investigate the blatant interference (among other problems).

Litman subsequently attempted to retract his statement, noting that the email was sent ‘on background’.  But that wasn’t clarified during the initial email exchange.