Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is being investigated over his role in facilitating the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media, New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone revealed. Mr. Pallone sits on the committee in charge of overseeing the FCC and has reportedly managed to convince FCC Inspector General David L. Hunt to start an official investigation into Mr. Pai's actions that led to Sinclair's announcement of its $3.9 billion bid for Tribune last May. The policies Mr. Pai implemented in order to allow television broadcasters to increase the number of stations in their portfolio directly enabled the proposed merger that would have been legally impossible under the previous regulatory framework. The FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice are still in the process of reviewing the consolidation but were widely expected to greenlight it this spring, though the latest turn of events may postpone the approval indefinitely.
The probe into Mr. Pai's initially undisclosed dealings with Sinclair in the run-up to his relaxation of the rules that allowed the media conglomerate to bid for Tribune was initially called for by a number of Democratic Senators last November. Mr. Pallone was among to co-signers of the official request addressed to the FCC Inspector General. The parties calling for the probe alleged improper coordination between Mr. Pai and Sinclair dating back to November of 2016 before the then-Commissioner was elevated to the position of the FCC Chairman. Many meetings and correspondence between Mr. Pai and Sinclair weren't disclosed in a timely manner, the co-signers said. Sinclair's tie-up with Tribune was announced mere weeks after the FCC relaxed its station ownership rules, suggesting the conglomerate was aware of the upcoming regulatory changes as deals of such magnitude take months to be agreed, as per the same allegations.
Mr. Pai's office has yet to comment on the development but said the accusations were "baseless" when the initial investigation request was filed last November. The head of the telecom regulator has been the target of significant public criticism in recent months due to his initiative that led to the repeal of the Title II net neutrality protections in the United States, a move that has yet to be confirmed by the judicial system.