Thune Statement on FCC IG Report Concluding that Chairman Wheeler Initiated Lifeline Leak

Report underscores how secrecy and disclosure decisions by an FCC chairman undermine transparency and fully informed public discussion

October 6, 2016

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee issued the following statement on findings by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) inspector general that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler authorized his staff to discreetly disclose details of non-public information to select media outlets about ongoing deliberations to reform the Lifeline program. To date, Chairman Wheeler has declined to publicly answer questions about his role in the leak of information concerning FCC efforts to reform the Lifeline program, which provides subsidized mobile phones to low-income Americans.

“The findings by the inspector general reveal significant dysfunction and a lack of transparency at the FCC,” said Thune. “Under the agency’s current interpretation, the FCC chairman is free to leak cherry-picked details about proceedings and deliberations while other commissioners are gagged and even kept in the dark about decisions by the chairman to approve such leaks. Worse yet, the FCC is not keeping a record of decisions by the chairman to disclose non-public information. This report is yet another indication of increased partisanship and dysfunction at the FCC that underscores the need for Congress to reform how the agency does business.”

Chairman Wheeler has previously declined to address his role in the unusual disclosure but the inspector general’s report found:
“[FCC Communications Director Shannon] Gilson sought and received authorization from [FCC Chairman] Wheeler and [FCC Chief of Staff Ruth] Milkman to provide the press with high level details. Gilson exercised her discretion in choosing both Politico and McGill as the appropriate recipients of this information, and instructed [Counselor to the Chairman Gigi] Sohn to make the call.”

The inspector general’s report concluded:

“The events surrounding the March 31st Commission vote adopting the Lifeline Order, while not unprecedented in their entirety, were certainly unusual. Typically, commissioners do not engage in negotiations resulting in significant policy shifts in the final hours prior to a Commission vote. Thus, while such activity is not improper or illegal, the rarity of the occurrence explains in large measure the interest, speculation and concern the matter has generated. Our investigation has enabled us (1) to reconstruct with a fair degree of precision exactly how information was obtained by the press in advance of the vote and (2) to understand the motivations of key FCC officials relative to significant actions taken with respect to the Order. As explained above, when the Chairman authorized release of the fact that a compromise order with a cap on Lifeline may be on the agenda, pursuant to 47 C.F.R. § 19.735-203(a), the character of information changed from previously non-public information to information that would be available for public disclosure. However, disclosure of the cap amount was not specifically authorized by the Chairman. Further, we found no evidence that the information was provided to the press in an attempt to unduly influence the outcome of the vote.”
The investigation began after Thune sent a letter to Wheeler on April 15, 2016, asking whether or not he had notified the agency’s inspector general about possible employee misconduct. This letter followed a March 18 letter from Thune to Wheeler asking broadly about Wheeler’s authority to release non-public information. The subsequent actions by Wheeler at the March 31st open meeting, when the FCC turned what could have been a 4-1 bipartisan decision to adopt a $2 billion cap for the Lifeline program into a 3-2 partisan vote that left the program uncapped, prompted Thune to follow up on his broad questions about Wheeler’s authority to ask whether Wheeler specifically authorized the release of non-public information in advance of the March 31 open meeting.  The Lifeline program has been marked by controversy, particularly with respect to allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse.  

Click here for a copy of the report by FCC inspector general. All redactions have been made by the inspector general’s office.

Sen. Thune addressed concerns about growing partisanship at the FCC during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing with FCC commissioners on September 15, 2016.