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FCC IG investigating process leading up to net neutrality order

The FCC inspector general, David Hunt, has opened up an investigation into the commission process leading up to the net neutrality order, a process that has been under attack by the GOP since the commission passed the order on a party line vote last month.

House oversight committee chairman Jason Chaffetz dropped that bombshell at the conclusion of a two and a half hour hearing where GOP House members grilled FCC chairman Tom Wheeler over how the commission considered and then passed its net neutrality order. The FCC IG’s office was unable to confirm the investigation because Hunt was out.

“We were told about [the investigation] in the last couple of days. I didn’t know about it until I walked up here,” Chaffetz told reporters following the hearing.

When asked, Wheeler said he didn’t know about the IG’s investigation but said he would cooperate with it.

Chaffetz also said he was considering legislation that would require the FCC to release an order before voting on it.

“One of the things evident to me, we’re going to have to compel openness and transparency because given the choice, the FCC chose not to do that,” Chaffetz said.

GOP members on the House oversight committee were loaded for bear during Tuesday’s hearing. The hearing probed whether or not the White House exerted undo pressure on Wheeler, failed to get to the bottom of what really, if anything happened between Wheeler and the White House.

It’s all comes down to what was said in emails and in 10 meetings that Wheeler had with White House officials in the months leading up to the President’s statement last November.

“You met at the White House multiple times during the open comment period and after the comment period closed, and we’re supposed to believe that on one of the most important things the FCC has ever done, this didn’t come up?” asked committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

Wheeler insisted that he did not take any direction from the White House. “The Administration was scrupulous in making clear that we are an independent agency,” Wheeler said. Wheeler also quoted what the President told him during his first Oval Office meeting as Chairman: “You need to understand that I will never call you. You are an independent agency.”

Of the 10 meetings, the last was at the FCC with Jeffrey Zients, an assistant to the President for economic policy, who let Wheeler know the President was going to come out in favor of Title II, the 1934 statute that the GOP argues is the wrong approach.

To the GOP those meetings look suspicious, especially since the only meeting that was documented at the FCC by an official ex parte filed was the Nov. 6 meeting at the FCC between Zients and Wheeler. Wheeler said that was the first time he heard about what the President was going to do.

“The only time Jeffrey Zients said to me that this is what the President’s position is, was when they came [to the FCC] and filed an ex parte,” Wheeler said in response to a question from Chaffetz.

On the other meetings, Wheeler said it was to discuss “they were on other topics,” such as trade or the spectrum auction.

Adding fuel to the GOP fire were copies of Commission emails that the FCC provided in a highly redacted form to organizations and groups in response to FOIA requests. In some cases, entire pages of text were blacked out.

“Your organization is redacting this information and it’s wrong,” said Chaffetz.

Ranking member Elizah Cummings countered that that the GOP weren’t playing fair, referring to a spate of communications between GOP FCC commissioner Mike O’Rielly and former GOP FCC commissioners Robert McDowell and Harold Furchtgott-Roth, and Tech Freedom’s Berin Szoka for crafting an op ed. “If Republicans want to accuse the President of inappropriate behavior, they need to be fair,” Cummings said.

Wheeler also took a drubbing for not using his discretion to release the net neutrality order before it was voted on Feb. 26. “I did not release the draft order, because it was a draft. But I did take pains to release fact sheets and other materials,” Wheeler said.

“Maybe we should require a 30-day rule for orders, and let it be out there,” Chaffetz said.