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Dingell Investigates FCC's Chairman

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WASHINGTON The chairman of the House Commerce Committee said that he is losing confidence in the way the Federal Communications Commission is being handled and has launched an investigation into the methods used by the head of the agency.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., one of Congress' most dogged investigators, told FCC chairman Kevin Martin on Monday that he thinks the agency is on the verge of a breakdown.

"Procedural breakdowns at the agency tasked with overseeing communications laws for our entire nation jeopardize the public interest it is bound to serve," Dingell said. "Our nation is founded on fair, open and transparent government, and the FCC is certainly no exception. When that openness and transparency is compromised, so too is public confidence in the agency."

In a letter dated Dec. 3, Dingell told Martin that the Commerce Committee's investigative panel, which Dingell chairs, was launching an investigation into the FCC's practices.

"Given several events and proceedings over the past year, I am rapidly losing confidence that the commission has been conducting its affairs in an appropriate manner," Dingell wrote. "While this is certainly not true for every commission proceeding, a trend appears to be emerging of short-circuiting procedural norms, suggesting a larger breakdown at the agency."

In particular, Dingell wants Martin to answer questions about how he informs the public and other commissioners about upcoming rule changes.

Wrote Dingell: "For instance, the commission does not put the text of proposed rules out for notice and comment; there is little public notice of certain proposed commission actions; and commissioners are often not informed of the details of draft items until it is too late to provide the necessary scrutiny and analysis that is so important to reasoned decision-making."

Recently, commissioners Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, and Robert McDowell, a Republican, accused Martin of withholding information in the commission's recent decision on whether the cable industry had reached a critical subscriber threshold that would allow the commission to regulate the industry.

"Taken as a whole, these events lead to larger concerns as to the inclination and ability of the commission to perform its core mission: the implementation of federal law to serve the public interest," Dingell wrote.

FCC rep Clyde Ensslin said the chairman would answer the lawmaker's questions.

Martin's tangle with Congress isn't likely to end with Dingell's letter, known in Washington as a "Dingellgram," as he is scheduled Wednesday to face the Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee over his proposal to undo the general ban that keeps one company from owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same city. Martin has proposed lifting the ban in the top 20 markets.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to approve legislation today that would delay FCC consideration of new media-ownership rules by at least six months.