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FCC watchdog investigates Ajit Pai over Sinclair-Tribune merger

The FCC's inspector general has been investigating whether Chairman Pai inappropriately pushed for rule changes that would favor Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai

The Federal Communications Commission's Office of Inspector General is reportedly investigating Chairman Ajit Pai over his dealings with Sinclair Broadcast Group before it announced a merger with Tribune Media.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The internal watchdog for the Federal Communications Commission is investigating Chairman Ajit Pai over claims he may have improperly pushed to loosen media ownership rules that would favor Sinclair Broadcast Group, right before the company's announced $3.9 billion buyout of Tribune Media, according to a New York Times report.

The newspaper says Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, confirmed, along with two congressional aides, that the FCC's Office of Inspector General had opened an investigation last year into Pai's dealings with Sinclair. The Office of Inspector General is nonpartisan and reports to the FCC. It regularly updates Congress on some investigations but doesn't confirm or deny investigations.

The inquiry centers around Pai's dealings with Sinclair Broadcast Group before he pushed the FCC to loosen rules that allow television broadcasters to increase the number of stations they own. The FCC adopted rules last April. A few weeks later, Sinclair announced plans to buy Tribune media, which would make it the largest owner of broadcast stations in the country.

The merger was made possible by the change in the rules. The FCC and the Department of Justice are currently reviewing the merger, which The New York Times says is expected to get approval from both agencies.

An FCC internal inquiry into Pai's conduct around the company could fuel opposition to the deal. Democrats on Capitol Hill as well as several consumer interest groups have opposed the merger, arguing that it hurts citizens access to local news coverage by reducing the number of media outlets in a given market.

Sinclair is considered a conservative-leaning company with ties to President Donald Trump.  According to a December 2016 story in Politico, the Trump camp "struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage." Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly told a group of executives that the campaign promised to give Sinclair more access to Trump. In exchange, Sinclair would broadcast its Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Politico reported. There are also reports that Trump discussed possible changes to media ownership rules with Sinclair CEO David Smith.

A spokesman for Pai's office denied there's been any favoritism on behalf of Sinclair.

"Given that the FCC under Chairman Pai's leadership recently proposed a $13 million fine against Sinclair, the largest fine in history for a violation of the Commission's sponsorship identification rules, the accusation that he has shown favoritism toward the company is absurd," he said.

He added that Pai has for years called on the FCC to update its media ownership regulations.

"The chairman's actions on these issues have been consistent with his long-held views," the spokesman said.  "Considering 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 the reforms that the FCC has adopted."

A representative from Sinclair Broadcast Group declined to comment.

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