Cozy Relations Between Independent Agency and Special Interests: Group Coordinates Media Strategy with FCC Commissioner Prior to Vote

Yesterday, Judicial Watch made public a series of email exchanges they uncovered between FCC Commissioner Michael Copps and the liberal advocacy group Free Press.  The emails were obtained through a FOIA request made last December 2010.  The emails show a coordinated effort by Free Press to influence the FCC’s decision on net neutrality regulations.

 

Peter Suderman at Reason has an excellent post detailing the back and forth between Free Press and Commissioner Copps office:

 

On November 1, Ettinger, who acts as the “media coordinator” for Free Press’s “Save the Internet” project, wrote an email to McCarthy in Copps’s office: “I wanted to gauge your interest in doing an oped by Commissioner Copps for the Albuquerque Journal,” Ettinger wrote. She even offered to write the piece herself. “I’m happy to help draft, or place if need be.” By November 9, the op-ed was in process. Copps’s chief of staff John Giusti wrote back to Ettinger, “we’re working on the op-ed.” He added his fellow FCC staffers McCarthy and Cinelli to the email chain. 

            …..

Copps’s staffers were the ones drafting the editorial, but they sought specific input from Free Press during the writing process: “I am working with a draft that is about 625 words,” McCarthy wrote to Ettinger on November 10. “Does that sound ok in terms of length or should we be aiming for something shorter?”  To which Ettinger replied: “I think 600 would be the max they would take.  Is it possible to trim. If not I’m sure 25 extra words is fine and I can work with the Journal.”  It’s not entirely clear what the final line in Ettinger’s email means.  But it certainly could be taken to suggest that Ettinger, who had previously offered to draft the entire op-ed, was offering to make final edits on the piece during the placement process.

 

The email chain shows a very cozy relationship between Free Press and Copps.  The question we have to ask is, how did they know they could contact Copps to write opeds for them? Is his office “open for business?”  The public expects him to do the job of properly representing the needs and interests of the American people, not to do the bidding of a partisan, big-moneyed special interest group.

 

Of course, people are free to lobby government officials, but under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, all lobbying activity must be disclosed.   Commissioners are expected to vote on items based on what is in the public record.  These meetings and discussions were never made part of the public record, they were conducted behind closed doors and over private email correspondence.  This is a clear dereliction of Copps’ duty as a public official, and could violate the FCC’s ex parte rules, which clearly states that these emails should have been reported by Free Press.

 

Furthermore, Commissioner Copps office wasn’t just being lobbied by Free Press.  His office was actively working with Free Press to get op-eds written and placed.   This shows an obvious conflict of interest.  This coordination could potentially call into question the validity of the last December’s net neutrality regulations vote.   There’s certainly enough evidence to suggest Copps should have recused himself from the 3-2 vote.

 

Of course, this new revelation is especially rich considering Free Press’ frequent howling about government transparency.   They’re the first to accuse anyone of improperly lobbying the FCC and having meetings behind closed doors.  But this isn’t the first time Free Press has been caught having private discussions and meetings with FCC officials on behalf of net neutrality.  The Daily Caller uncovered several instances of Free Press meeting secretly and behind closed doors with FCC officials, and conveniently forgetting to disclose it under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

 

Mercatus’ Adam Therier wonders aloud whether Free Press will call for one of their trademark Congressional investigations into this improper contact.  Given what we know about the way Free Press does business, I wouldn’t count on it.

 

Zack Christenson is a Chicago-based digital strategist who writes on tech policy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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