Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is being investigated by the FCC inspector general over suggestions that he improperly scrapped regulations to help Sinclair Broadcast Group buy rival TV station operator Tribune Media, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and two congressional aides told The New York Times on Thursday. The investigation was reportedly launched in December, and it is unclear how far along it has come or when it will conclude. The FCC inspector general's office doesn't always publish its findings, though they can be procured through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Last April, Pai pushed through the first of several regulatory changes that allow TV broadcasters to increase the number of stations they own — Sinclair, already the nation's largest TV broadcaster, would own 223 stations reaching 72 percent of households if its $3.9 billion Tribune purchase goes through. Under rules in place since the 1970s, broadcasters were limited to 39 percent of markets. Pai calls those rules outdated in the internet age, but critics say the conservative Sinclair's vast expansion would limit the diversity of news in markets across the U.S.
Pai had met with Sinclair executives right before President Trump elevated him to chairman and corresponded with Sinclair officials several times afterward, and Pai has refused requests from Democratic lawmakers to hand over his communications with Sinclair and the White House. "For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai's relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting," Pallone told the Times. "I am grateful to the FCC's inspector general that he has decided to take up this important investigation." A spokesman for Pai has described the accusations as "baseless," pointing out that Pai has long favored deregulation and the FCC fined Sinclair for deceptive advertising in December.