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Lawmakers to probe FCC "transparency" concerns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A key House lawmaker said on Monday he would launch an investigation into complaints about the way the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is being run by FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell said a commerce subcommittee would look into “an apparent breakdown in an open and transparent regulatory process” at the FCC under Martin.

The chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Bart Stupak, said he had received complaints about the FCC from the public and from communications industry professionals.

“It is one thing to be an aggressive leader, but many of the allegations indicate possible abuse of power and an attempt to intentionally keep fellow commissioners in the dark,” said Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan.

FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said: “We will respond to the congressman as we do with all letters from members.”

He declined further comment.

Dingell cited a dispute that erupted at the FCC’s last meeting on November 27, when some commissioners accused Martin of suppressing and manipulating information in pursuit of a measure that would have opened the door to tougher regulations on U.S. cable TV operators.

In addition to the dispute over proposed cable regulations, Martin has also triggered criticism from some lawmakers, consumer groups and other commissioners by pressing for the commission to vote by year’s end on changes that would loosen U.S. media ownership rules.

Dingell’s letter came two days before Martin is scheduled to go before another House Energy and Commerce subcommittee for a hearing on the media ownership issue.

Dingell’s inquiry was welcomed by Consumers Union, a watchdog group that has urged the FCC to take more time before changing the media ownership rules.

“We think the commission is going too quickly through a very complicated and important media ownership analysis,” Consumers Union vice president Gene Kimmelman said.

But Kimmelman said problems with the FCC’s procedures go back “many many years” and should not be blamed solely on Martin.

Dingell, also a Democrat from Michigan, expressed broader concerns that, under Martin, the FCC was not giving enough notice of proposed new FCC rules and was late giving other four commissioners the details draft meeting agenda items.

Dingell gave Martin until December 10 to respond to a list of questions and asked him to commit to a series of changes aimed at making the agency more open.

Three of the five commissioners at the independent agency, including Martin, are Republican. The other two are Democrats.

“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 to Martin.

Dingell also asked Martin about the FCC’s policies on “document retention,” including retention of internal or external commission correspondence ...”

“If these policies have changed since you became chairman, please describe those changes, the date the changes were instituted, any staff education and oversight activities related to the changes and the rationale behind the changes,” Dingell listed among the questions he raised.

Reporting by Peter Kaplan; Editing by Andre Grenon