FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told Sen. Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) that as a general rule, the FCC, meaning the chairman on delegated authority, "may choose to release nonpublic information when we think it will promote the discussion and understanding of important policy issues, but do no harm to our internal decisionmaking."
The chairman's answer did not sit appear to satisfy Thune's concerns.
“In his response, Chairman Wheeler maintains he has broad authority to release nonpublic information unilaterally, in apparent contradiction of the plain language of FCC rules," said a spokesman for the Republican majority.
"Further, his response did not answer the question of whether he authorized a leak of nonpublic information on March 31. In addition to the requested FCC inspector general investigation, the Commerce Committee will continue to examine this matter.”
The spokesman was responding to a letter to Thune from Wheeler
(http://www.broadcastingcable.com/news/washington/sen-thune-asks-wheeler-...), a copy of which was obtained by Multichannel News/B&C. Wheeler was responding to questions raised by Thune about the FCC's March 31 Lifeline vote, which was delayed several hours after a compromise proposal, which was reported first by Politico and subsequently by Multichannel News, B&C and others, fell apart.
Wheeler outlined instances in which he had decided disclosing nonpublic information would be "in the best interests of the agency." Those were 1) when it was necessary to coordinate activities with other federal agencies or law enforcement, 2) when it consults with outside experts on mergers, 3) when it briefs members of Congress or staff, 4) when commissioners or staff provide summaries in blogs, fact sheets, or press briefings about agenda items that are of "significant public interest," 5) and when the FCC releases information about internal processes
to foster conversation about process reform.
Wheeler said the FCC's Inspector General was investigating the leak of the Lifeline compromise, and that he was cooperating.
Wheeler also pointed a finger of sorts at Commissioner Ajit Pai. "It is already a matter of record that Commissioner Pai and his staff disclosed information about the commissioners' deliberations both before and after the open meeting on March 31, 2016," he said.
"It is noteworthy that Chairman Wheeler Wheeler does not deny his office leaked the Clyburn/Pai/O'Rielly deal to Politico," said Pai chief of staff Matthew Berry. "There was only one office that had an interest in leaking the deal, and that was chairman Wheeler's."
In his letter to Wheeler, Thune said events surrounding the FCC's March 31 meeting "raise new questions about the Commission's policies for the disclosure of nonpublic information."
The March 31 meeting was delayed for over three hours after the Republican-backed compromise was struck, and then fell apart after commissioner Mignon Clyburn concluded she could not support a cap on the Lifeline fund, which subsidizes advanced telecom to low-income residents. The FCC is migrating the fund to broadband but ultimately voted not to cap the fund, though approaching the $2.25 billion allocation will trigger a review of the fund.
Thune said the delays were "highly unusual—they certainly were for the generally punctual Wheeler commission—and cited media reports, including Broadcasting & Cable stories, about the compromise and the delay.
Thune said the proper functioning of the FCC depends on the confidentiality of deliberations and asked Wheeler to explain the disclosures of nonpublic information in those news reports, whether he or any other employee authorized disclosure and, if so, any legal justification for doing so.
Thune said the leaks of info appeared "designed to engage outside interest groups to disrupt the deal struck between the Republican Commissioners and Commissioner Clyburn."
He asked whether the FCC was planning to investigate who leaked the information about deliberations, and if not, why not.
Wheeler has said there was no such strategy to kneecap the compromise, and branded the suggestion "balderdash."