Congressional report: FCC chair abused power

A report released by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce accuses Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin of ignoring his responsibilities.

Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
Stephanie Condon
4 min read

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin ignored his responsibilities as head of the regulatory body and abused his power, according to a congressional report released Tuesday.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin Federal Communications Commission

Over the course of his tenure, Martin manipulated and withheld information from the other FCC commissioners and from Congress, neglected his statutory responsibilities to produce certain information to Congress, and ignored evidence that certain national communications programs were being grossly mismanaged, according to the report issued by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, titled "Deception and Distrust: The Federal Communications Commission Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin." (PDF)

The committee launched a bipartisan investigation in January after hearing allegations of mismanagement from current and former FCC employees, telecommunications industry representatives, and other FCC commissioners.

Typically, a congressional committee would hold hearings to investigate such matters, but the report was issued in lieu of hearings because, the report says, "due to the climate of fear that pervades the FCC...we found that key witnesses were unwilling to testify or even to have their names become known."

"Our investigation confirmed a number of troubling allegations raised by individuals in and outside the FCC," said Bart Stupak (D-MI), chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations. "It is my hope that this report will serve as a road map for a fair, open, and efficient FCC under new leadership in the next administration."

Some of Martin's actions have led to higher telecommunications prices for consumers, the report finds. The commission, it says, failed to provide proper oversight of the Telecommunications Relay Service Fund, which funds special services that allow people with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate with hearing people.

The fund is financed by contributions from interstate telecommunications companies, based on a percentage of their revenues. The companies pass the cost down to consumers, who typically pay 7 cents to 10 cents per month for the fund. The fund, which compensates telephone companies for administering the program, has grown to more than $800 million.

The chairman's office, the report says, ignored evidence consumers were overcharged and providers were overcompensated by as much as $100 million a year. The neglect of that information led to a windfall of millions of dollars for the largest TRS provider, Sorenson, which covers about 80 percent of the video relay services market.

The report recommends the FCC immediately conduct a full investigation and audit of the company. The FCC earlier hired a contractor to audit Sorenson, but the company denied the contractor access to the staff and systems necessary to conduct the audit.

The report also recommends the Government Accountability Office audit the entire TRS program, including the FCC's efforts to protect the integrity of the fund.

"The FCC's apparent failure to insist on auditing Sorenson's books indicates an abdication of its responsibility to administer and protect the integrity of the TRS Fund," the report reads.

The report also says Martin manipulated information given to his fellow commissioners and Congress. For instance, upon becoming chair in 2005, the report says, Martin ordered FCC staff to reverse the findings of a study, which initially said that "a la carte" cable programming would not benefit consumers. He also demoted the Media Bureau chief, who had been in charge of the study.

The reversal led to suspicion inside and out of the FCC that the study sent to Congress was not based on objective analysis, the committee report says.

Moreover, Martin's personnel management style, the report says, has led to a decline in morale and an environment of distrust at the FCC.

"Chairman Martin's heavy-handed, opaque, and non-collegial management style has created distrust, suspicion, and turmoil among the five current commissioners," it says.

Other allegations investigated by the House committee proved to be founded on inconclusive evidence, although the report recommended the committee further investigate some claims. For instance, the FCC allegedly threatened to suspend action on the Liberty Media-DirecTV acquisition that was pending before the commission until DirecTV added certain local stations to the White House's satellite service.

"After a year of investigation, the committee's primary criticism of the chairman is that he spent too much money to ensure that deaf Americans have equal access to communications services," FCC spokesman Robert Kenny said in response to the report. "The chairman makes no apologies for his commitment to serving deaf and disabled Americans and for fighting to lower exorbitantly high cable rates that consumers are forced to pay."

The report says Martin has taken steps since Congress began its investigation to make the commission more transparent, such as holding regular press conferences.