An internal investigation cleared the head of the Federal Communications Commission of any impropriety or favoritism toward Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group and its now failed merger with Tribune Media.
A report by the FCC’s Office of Inspector General found no evidence that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai lacked impartiality related to the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger.
“I’m pleased that the Office of Inspector General has concluded that there was ‘no evidence, nor even the suggestion, of impropriety, unscrupulous behavior, favoritism towards Sinclair, or lack of impartiality related to the proposed Sinclair-Tribune Merger,’” Pai said in a press release Monday.
Pai, an appointee of President Donald Trump, had been criticized for loosening TV ownership regulations that were viewed as beneficial to conservative-leaning Sinclair and its controversial $3.9 billion deal. The merger collapsed Aug. 9 after Tribune withdrew then sued Sinclair for breach of contract.
The sheer size of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune combination had sparked concerns about a loss of diverse voices in broadcasting and the precedent it might set.
For years before becoming FCC chairman, Pai said he had called on the agency to update media ownership regulations he viewed as outdated in a modern media marketplace.
“As I said when this investigation was first announced, the suggestion that I favored any one company was absurd, and today’s report proves that Capitol Hill Democrats’ politically-motivated accusations were entirely baseless,” Pai said in a statement Monday.
Responding to requests from Congress last November, the Inspector General began investigating whether Pai took steps to improperly benefit Sinclair.
The report found that steps Pai took to loosen regulations were consistent with his long-held and publicly stated views. It noted a proposed fine against Sinclair for sponsorship violations that was the largest such fine in FCC history.
“This is evidence of lack of favoritism toward Sinclair,” the report said.
The inspector general’s office reviewed emails, phone records and visitor logs as well as interviewed Pai and his chief of staff.
Members of Congress had raised questions about Pai’s and the Trump administration’s interactions with Sinclair.
“Multiple press reports have suggested a favorable relationship existed between Sinclair and the Trump campaign, and now exists with the Trump Administration,” several members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce said in a letter last August.
While many had viewed Pai as friendly to the Sinclair merger, the chairman in a surprising move last month raised “serious concerns” about the deal being in the public interest.
The commission then sent the merger for review by an FCC administrative hearing judge, viewed as a death knell for such mergers. That prompted Tribune to back out of the deal and file a lawsuit against its former partner.