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House Report on FCC Chairman Is No Laughing Matter

01/09/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the odd traditions in the little world of Washington telecommunications is that every year, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is supposed to get up in front of hundreds of telecom lawyers, lobbyists, reporters and others and perform a comedy routine. Some chairmen or commissioners have done videos. Some have hired professional joke writers. Some have bombed. Some have actually been funny.

Over the past couple of years, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin got a lot of mileage out of making jokes about his "KGB-style management" at the Commission. It was well known in Communicationsville that Martin runs a very tight ship at the FCC, and he decided that rather than run from the reputation, he would make jokes about it. Think of the famous Radio and Television Correspondents dinner, with George Bush looking around for WMD and the punditocracy laughing with, not at, him.

In 2006 and last year, he used his designated humor speech at the Federal Communications Bar Association (FCBA) dinners to poke fun at himself, including drawing up a "top 7 list" of how the FCC isn't like the KGB. Number 3 on the list: "The KGB is run efficiently."

Nobody's laughing today, as this story elsewhere on Huffington Post shows.

That's because the Democratic staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report entitled "Deception and Distrust: The Federal Communications Commission Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin." The report reads like a 110-page indictment, complete with exhibits. And, according to Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), the chairman of the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, there will be more to come.

The report sets out in excruciating detail, supported in some cases by email from FCC staff, how Martin withheld information or ignored information that could have changed the outcome of some proceedings, how he intervened in proceedings and how he created a culture of paranoia around the Commission so that staffers weren't willing to risk disagreeing with the Chairman's conclusions on issues for fear of being demoted. At the Commission, this is called being "Martinized," the report said.

Among the issues in the report: Important data critical to making decisions was withheld or ignored. Warnings about massive overcharging in the service for the hearing-impaired were ignored. The Inspector General isn't sufficiently independent to conduct an investigation. An enforcement order against T-Mobile was renegotiated to lower a $1.3 million fine to $100,000. Someone at the White House complained that DirecTV wasn't providing sufficient local programming. The FCC staff told Liberty Media that its purchase of DirecTV would be held up until the problem was corrected. Reports required by law to be submitted to Congress weren't done on time, if at all.

As damaging as are the accounts of the individual cases, however, are the reports of staff intimidation and of the creation of the "climate of fear" in the agency. FCC staff were directed not to talk to other staff, or to workers at other government agencies. Staff were told to stop work on anything but not officially approved projects that have been assigned. "Projects that were authorized in the past are not necessarily considered to be authorized at this time," one email read.

Everything has to be decided by the chairman's office, from important regulatory issues to the hiring of student interns, the report found. The result was a demoralized, ineffective agency.

The initial reporting on the report has raised the question whether Martin's management style broke any laws. If a law was passed requiring the Commission to submit a report, and the Commission didn't submit it, one could argue a law was broken. Focusing on violations of law misses the point. The point is that the House report was that through mismanagement, millions of dollars were wasted; through intimidation, an agency was made dysfunctional.

The great 1950s comedian Sid Caesar once said, "Comedy has to be based on truth." It's unfortunate that in making the KGB jokes, Martin was sticking closely to what many see as the unfortunate reality of life at the FCC during his tenure.

If nothing else comes of this report, and there may be more forthcoming from the Committee, the Obama transition team will have lots more material than they bargained on when considering how to alter the procedures, and culture, of a crucial government agency facing a mountain of new challenges.

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