Public hanging

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin received recently a very public hanging in the form of an 110-page report titled, " Deception and distrust: The federal communications commission under chairman Kevin J. Martin." The report was prepared by the staff of the ...
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FCC Chairman Kevin Martin received recently a very public hanging in the form of an 110-page report titled, " Deception and distrust: The federal communications commission under chairman Kevin J. Martin."

The report was prepared by the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee run by democrats John Dingell and Bart Stupak. While the committee did include two republicans, Joe Barton of Texas and John Shimkus, neither republican signed off on the democrat-authored report.

A republican deputy staff director for the committee, Larry Neal said, “A congressional investigation has established that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t play well with others. The inquiry was supposed to pin down some weightier matters. Evidently that didn’t pan out.”

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny said the agency’s review of the report showed that the commission “did not violate any rules, laws or procedures.”

During an unusual committee conference call with media reporters, Stupak repeatedly hammered Martin for abusing FCC procedures, suppressing reports, data and information. On one hand, Stupak chided the chairman for not providing records, then has to admit that the committee staff “reviewed several hundred thousand documents … including 95 boxes of paper documents; conducted 73 interviews of current and former FCC employees and individuals associated with the telecommunications industry, solicited and received e-mails from FCC employees and contractors at a secure e-mail address established for this purpose and reviewed dozens of allegations delivered by hand, fax, phone and mail.” Sounds like the FCC coughed up a ton of records.

Unfortunately, the press has focused highly on the report’s title, and how couldn’t they, “Deception and Distrust”? Let’s look a bit closer at what the report really said.

Most of the report, much of which is just copies of e-mails and letters, not surprisingly appears to confirm Stupak’s claims. For instance, one email thread shows FCC economist Daniel Shiman the lead report writer for the FCC’s work on cable a la carte, exchanging thoughts with chairman Martin’s senior legal advisor Catherine Bohigian.

July 7, 2005

From Mr. Shiman:

“Prices are therefore likely to be higher under a la carte, and viewership for smaller networks will be lower as people decline to purchase them.”

Minutes later Ms Bohigian replied: “Daniel, I’m concerned about point 3. Regardless of what the first report lacks or assumes incorrectly, the conclusions of this report is supposed to be that a la carte could be cheaper for consumers.” Mr. Shipman holds his ground saying: “Overall, I think pure a la carte would likely raise most cable bills with fewer channels delivered.” Two minutes later, Ms Bohigian reiterates her previous point: “Daniel the report cannot conclude that a la carte would likely raise most cable bills, with fewer channels delivered. If that is going to be the conclusion, we need to stop now.”

From this desktop, looks like Martin’s staff had decided that the commission’s report on imposing cable a la carte had to show a consumer benefit, or the report needed to be killed. If true, that is troublesome.

This also hints as to another accusation in the subcommittee’s report, that of Kevin’s micromanagement. At one point, FCC staff members apparently decided to wear black clothing to work in protest against his management style.

Other complaints include:

• That Martin provided lax oversight by paying too much money to the telecoms who provide video relay service (VRS) to the hearing-impaired permitting an “unjustified rate increase.” The report claims this cost taxpayers an extra $100 million more per year. Given today’s economic environment, what’s another $100 million?

Just to be clear, the costs of VRS are paid by fees collected as the “universal service tax,” which is a part of every phone bill. If the costs to fund VRS go up, so too does your universal service tax. In addition, one firm providing VRS, the Sorenson company, refused to cooperate with an FCC auditor and the audit was never completed. Bottom line, we’ll never know if the additional funding was really needed.

• The report said Martin’s “peremptory reversal” (see note above) of the commission’s cable a la carte were “handled neither openly nor fairly.” Martin was a strong advocate of cable a la carte, so it would not be surprising to find that his staff was like minded.

• Martin is accused of creating a “climate of fear and intimidation at the FCC” by micromanaging staff, reassigning staffers he disliked and demoting senior staffers to junior positions. The report called this being “Martinized.” The committee claimed it had to go to extraordinary lengths to solicit FCC staff comments. It even established a report hotline email address so staffers could feel safe complaining about their FCC boss. The committee claims more than 100 emails were received.

• The report said the agency’s chief of public safety, Derek Poarch was a rogue employee with respect to travel and expenses. Congressman Stupak claims Poarch used non-approved airlines for travel, rented premium vehicles, was reimbursed for inflated expenses, took per diem money for days not worked and billed for days not worked and personal travel to his home.

I’ve never worked for the government, but how do you get paid a salary and still get paid per diem and for days not worked? If Poarch did so, this is the fault of a government accounting departmental, not an FCC chairman-level issue.

For Martin, this has to be an embarrassing and public, albeit partisan, humiliation. The report could have been titled differently. It should have been handled more professionally, far less partisan and not so media focused. The democrats on this committee were out for Martin’s head and they made sure it was a well-publicized public hanging.

For instance, when was the last time you heard of a subcommittee holding a conference call with selected media journalists to present its report? Never. The entire investigation was a convenient a way to embarrass chairman Martin, and by default the White House.

Even so, was the investigation deserved? Probably. Should the results have been handled better? Absolutely.

Washington is a knuckles town. Politicians play hardball and they always play to win. Even innocent bureaucrats have no place to hide if an elected official decides to put a target on their back.

This report was designed to make sure Martin does not stick around for the next administration. Right or wrong, game over: Democrat’s committee 1, Martin 0.