Upton, Walden Question Independence of FCC Inspector General

Two powerful Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Inspector General David Hunt Monday questioning his office’s ability to properly oversee FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“The committee is concerned with the apparent erosion of the Inspector General’s independence,” Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) wrote in the letter.

The lawmakers said that materials provided to the committee suggest that the inspector general has sent draft audits and reports to Wheeler’s office for review before publication. They also say that the commission’s human resources office, which reports directly to the chairman, is now involved in the hiring process for the inspector general’s office.

Upton and Walden said they believe some audit reports that are critical of FCC actions are missing from the commission’s website.

“There is growing concern that because the FCC inspector general is appointed by, reports to, and is under the general supervision of the chairman of the commission, that the IG is not free to provide the honest and independent criticism that is critical to the performance of the IG’s oversight,” the congressmen wrote.

Upton and Walden asked the inspector general to answer a series of questions related to his office’s independence from Wheeler’s. They also asked him to provide communications between his and Wheeler’s offices regarding edits, suggestions, comments or observations on inspector general reports, along with any communications concerning hiring decisions.

The FCC inspector general website says the position “reports to, and is under the general supervision of, the FCC chair.” The commission’s inspector general is appointed by the chairman.

That oversight structure is different from the majority of federal agencies, where inspectors general are nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and operate independent offices separate from their parent agencies. That includes the inspector general at the Securities and Exchange Commission, which operates independently from the SEC commissioner.

Upton and Walden said these concerns have prompted proposals to amend federal law “in order to establish an independent inspector general for the FCC, one insulated from acts of reprisal in the execution of its oversight of the agency.”

A spokeswoman for the FCC declined to comment on the letter.

On Oct. 6, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, released the findings of an FCC inspector general investigation into the leak of details related to an impending deal between Republican and Democratic FCC commissioners on funding for the FCC’s Lifeline program.

The report found that the leak was authorized by Wheeler’s office, but it did not accuse the chairman of improper or illegal activity.