FCC wants to know if changes Pai pushed aided Sinclair-Tribune merger

U.S. watchdog to probe chairman's decisions in broadcast deal Democrat

The FCC's inspector general, David L. Hunt, has reportedly kicked off an investigation into whether chairperson Ajit Pai and aides "improperly pushed" for rule changes past year to benefit Sinclair Broadcasting, according to the New York Times.

Pallone also said the FCC's decision to allow the TV industry to transition to a new digital standard "could provide billions of dollars in licensing fees to Sinclair through its patent holdings" and a vote to change existing broadcast media ownership limits removed obstacles "to Sinclair increasing its reach beyond the Tribune merger proposal".

The newspaper says Representative 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 a year ago into Pai's dealings with Sinclair.

"For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai's relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting", Mr. Pallone, the top Democrat on the committee that oversees the FCC, told NYT.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is under investigation by the agency's independent watchdog over decisions that benefit Sinclair Broadcasting. A union of Sinclair and Tribune would create the nation's biggest television broadcaster, reaching 7 out of 10 U.S. homes.

The extent of the investigation is not clear, nor is how long it will take.

That letter followed an exchange between Pallone and Pai in August and September in which Pallone asked for information about decisions the FCC had made to lift ownership rules but Pai "repeatedly refused to adequately respond to", according to Pallone.

The case has also taken on a political dimension thanks to Sinclair's promotion of Republican issues including the controversial use of pre-recorded "must run" news segments that its subsidiaries are ordered to play on local TV stations and which often feature a strongly partisan tone.

There is already some evidence to cast doubt on the integrity of Pai's decisions and relationship with Sinclair.

Conservative-leaning Sinclair is proposing a takeover of Tribune Media.

A spokesman for Pai said on Thursday the "accusation that he has shown favoritism toward the company is absurd", citing the FCC's $13 million proposed fine of Sinclair over undisclosed paid programming.

In November, several Democrats in Congress, including Pallone, called on the inspector general's office to explore all communications - including personal e-mails, social media accounts, text messages, and phone calls - between Sinclair and Pai and his staff.

We spoke directly with the inspector general, David Hunt, who stated that as a matter of policy his office does not comment on the existence of any investigation.

The aides, all of whom work for Democratic lawmakers, would speak only on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is private. The FCC and the Department of Justice are now reviewing the merger, which The New York Times says is expected to get approval from both agencies.

The acquisition is still pending but the shadow of an ongoing investigation is likely to delay it even further.

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