GAO Report Criticizes FCC Complaint Enforcement

Government Accountability Office Report Critical of Federal Communications Commission

The Government Accountability Office said consumer complaints to the Federal Communications Commission are getting short shrift because its enforcement bureau has no specific goals, no strategy and does not track its own effectiveness.

That is according to a report released Thursday by House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The study concluded that the FCC had made progress in enforcement, but that more was needed. The commission countered that it has taken steps to address those concerns, but that the GAO study is flawed.

“I appreciate the GAO’s examination of the FCC’s enforcement efforts and welcome its recommendations," said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in a statement. "Since I became chairman, the Enforcement Bureau is responding to 100% of Consumer complaints. Additionally, under my chairmanship, the commission has collected a record amount of fines, forfeitures and consent decree payments.

"Specifically, the GAO put forward valuable recommendations in the areas of enforcement data collection and analysis and performance management practices. Prior to the issuance of this report, the Commission had identified these issues and is already in the process of implementing measures to address them.”

The GAO report concluded that the FCC only investigated 10% of the complaints it received between 2003 and 2006 and took no enforcement action in 83% of the cases it did investigate.

It said the FCC database did not contain information on why there was no enforcement action in that "vast majority" of cases. 

"Specifically," concluded the report, "the FCC has not set measurable enforcement goals, developed a well-defined enforcement strategy, or established performance measures that are linked to the enforcement goals. Without key management tools, the FCC may have difficulty assuring Congress and other stakeholders that it is meeting its enforcement mission."

The report said limitations on collecting and analyzing data were the principal problems and recommended that the FCC improve both data-collection and performance measurements.

In a letter appended to the report, Kris Anne Monteith, chief of the enforcement bureau, said the GAO report was flawed, had undercounted numbers, missed some fields in the databases, and that the commission has already taken steps to address both its recommendations.

She also took issue with the age of the data examined, the errors she says were made by the GAO in the report, and concluded that "by relying on information that was out of date," the report--at the time only a draft--"provides a misleading descriptoin of the FCC's current enforcement processes."

Monteith also pointed to enforcement actions under FCC chairman Kevin Martin. She said the agency has taken 3,400 such actions, assessing more than $65.7 million in fines, forfeitures and consent decrees, including $43 million in 2007 -- the highest amount since the bureau was created in 1999. She added that the FCC had also worked through a backlog of 113,000 complaints.

The House Energy & Commerce Committee is in the midst of its own complaint-enforcement process against the FCC. It is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into FCC procedures.

Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) was not pleased with the GAO findings, vowing to hold the commission's feet to the fire. 

“When more than 80 percent of complaints investigated by the FCC are closed without any meaningful enforcement action, and it isn’t possible to determine why no action was taken, then it appears that the FCC has abdicated its duty to protect consumers," he said.   

“This GAO report clearly demonstrates why we cannot rely solely on the FCC to enforce complaints, and why it is important to have safeguards in place at both the federal and the state level, as is the case in my home state of Michigan. The Committee will exercise vigorous oversight to ensure that consumers have adequate protections and that the FCC performs its duties in an effective and timely manner.”

One of the things Congress can do to help the FCC is give it some more money. In its most recent budget, the commission asked Congress for additional funding to improve its data collection.