THE BLOG

Latest Washington Ethics Scandal: FCC Chairman Martin and the AT&T Merger

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

Just when you thought the GOP might rein in the brazen corruption that cost them the election, another ethics scandal is brewing; this time at the Federal Communications Commission. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is pushing through the merger of phone giants AT&T and BellSouth - thus creating the world's largest telecommunications company.

Here's the problem: First, Martin wants to approve the merger without protecting consumers or preserving "Net Neutrality" -- the long-held principle that prevents Internet providers from discriminating between Web sites.

Second, the FCC has 5 Commissioners. One of them, Robert McDowell, has a conflict of interest on this merger because he used to work for one of the stakeholders in the merger debate. He has rightly removed himself from participating in or voting on the issue, leaving the FCC in a 2-2 tie--2 Democrats, 2 Republicans.

Rather than negotiate in good faith, Chairman Martin - led by the nose by AT&T - has resorted to unethical, strong-arm tactics, ordering FCC lawyers to determine if McDowell may vote. He would then force McDowell to violate his ethical standards and vote for the merger.

This unprecedented step would represent a new low for the FCC, and flies in the face of the public's clarion call for cleaning up government. If approved, the merger would give AT&T over 70 million landline phone customers in 22 states, and 9.1 million high-speed Internet customers. And like all major media deals decided in Washington these days, the outcome will have a profound affect on the future of virtually all media as TV, radio, phone and countless emerging technologies become digital signals delivered through the Internet.

The transition is a revolutionary opportunity to get independent, diverse TV and radio channels into every home, but only if Network Neutrality is maintained. This once-arcane issue tripped up an entire telecom bill this year after millions of people, nearly 1,000 organizations, and arguably the biggest online advocacy campaign in history raised hell about cable and phone companies trying to privatize the Internet and eliminate competition. The biggest, baddest player in that fight? AT&T.

Martin's move has drawn a swift and pointed response from some of the most powerful politicians in Washington. Yesterday, incoming leaders of the House and Senate Commerce Committee that oversee the FCC, John Dingell (D-MI) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) both sent letters to Chairman Martin. Dingell's letter demanded an explanation, and stated that he wants the merger handled "without compromising the ethical standards of the independent agency or the individual Commissioners involved." Inouye questioned Martin's rationale for forcing the vote, and urged him to negotiate with the Democratic FCC commissioners.

Martin -- a former telecommunications-industry lobbyist who earned his stripes with the administration when he helped swing the 2000 Florida presidential recount in Bush's favor -- is between a rock and a hard place. His political patrons at AT&T and the largest media companies have delivered him their ultimatum. The new bosses in Congress are calling him out, and the public is waking up to this, the latest example of our badly broken political system.

If enough people raise their voices and the media actually report the story rather than the latest Brangelina development, we may actually see the public interest trump business-as-usual in Washington. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the merger December 20, so stay tuned.