The head of the Federal Communications Commission had no improper interactions with the White House over Sinclair Broadcast Corp.’s failed merger with Tribune Media, an internal investigation has found.
The FCC’s Office of Inspector General found no evidence that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai covered up or failed to disclose information about his interaction with the White House regarding the $3.9 billion deal.
The investigation, which followed up on an earlier probe, also found no evidence that Pai left out material information during a July 25 congressional hearing. The report found no evidence of any other communications between the White House and FCC staff regarding the deal.
“We are pleased that the Office of Inspector General has confirmed for a second time that there were no improper actions taken during the Sinclair-Tribune review process and that the investigation has concluded,” FCC spokesman Brian Hart said in an announcement Monday.
Pai, an appointee of President Donald Trump, had been criticized for loosening TV ownership regulations that were viewed as beneficial to conservative-leaning Sinclair and its controversial deal. But in a move that surprised many, the FCC in July sent the deal to an administrative law judge at the agency, a move viewed by some as a death knell for such mergers, after Pai raised concerns about the deal’s public interest benefits.
The deal collapsed Aug. 9 after Tribune withdrew, then sued Hunt Valley-based Sinclair for breach of contract. On Monday, Tribune announced that it would be purchased by Nexstar Media Group for about $4.1 billion. (Tribune Media was formerly part of Tribune Co., which once owned The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers, but spun them off in 2014.)
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, asked the inspector general’s office to investigate Pai’s dealings with the White House during the Sinclair-Tribune review. An earlier internal investigation at the end of August cleared Pai of any impropriety or favoritism toward Sinclair.
At issue in the most recent investigation was a hearing before the House energy and commerce committee on July 25. During the hearing, Pai agreed to disclose whether Trump or anyone in the White House discussed the merger with Pai or anyone at the FCC, subject to rules governing restricted proceedings.
Pai later disclosed during an Aug. 16 Senate hearing that White House Counsel Don McGahn had asked about the status of the commission’s decision on the merger in a phone call on July 16 or 17. McGahn’s phone call came around the time Pai and other commissioners first raised concerns about the Sinclair deal.
The report found that Pai’s response in the July 25 hearing was tailored to the question asked and not a “material” omission. Pai was not required to disclose the conversation with McGahn because it did not address the merits or outcome of the merger proceeding, the report found
In a letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Aug. 22, Pai explained that McGhan had asked him to clarify the FCC’s decision to send the deal to an administrative law judge.
“Mr. McGahn made a brief response along the lines of ‘okay, thanks,’ and the phone call then ended,” Pai said in the letter. “No view on the merits of the transaction was expressed, either directly or by implication on Mr. McGahn’s behalf, or on behalf anyone else.”