Federal Communications Commission officials have been showered with nearly $2.8 million in travel and entertainment over the past eight years, most of it from the telecommunications and broadcast industries the agency regulates, a new study by the Center for Public Integrity has found.
The FCC is preparing to relax several longstanding ownership rules for broadcasters and other media outlets. Those rules are widely credited with preventing the complete takeover of local and national media outlets by huge conglomerates such as Viacom, Tribune Co. and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Critics are particularly incensed the commission has held only one official public hearing on the controversial proposals, which are expected to touch off a major new round of media consolidation.
The officials often serve as speakers or panelists at the events, but many times go only as attendees. They often stay for the entire event at glitzy hotels such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas, even though they are only scheduled to give a single speech or serve on a single panel, FCC travel records show.The $2.8 million paid for FCC commissioners and agency staffers to attend hundreds of conventions, conferences and other events in locations all over the world, including Paris, Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro.
FCC officials took 330 such trips to Las Vegas during the period, 173 to New Orleans, 102 to New York and 98 to London. Other popular destinations included Orlando, San Francisco, Miami, Anchorage, Palm Springs, Buenos Aires and Beijing. (See listing of top destinations)All told, agency officials have taken more than 2,500 such industry-sponsored trips since 1995. The Center's report analyzed trips costing more than $250 that were paid for by sources other than the FCC. The trips occurred between May 1995 and February 2003. (See searchable version of the trips database)
While the vast majority of the trips were sponsored by the telecommunications and broadcast industries, some were paid for by universities and international organizations. Still others were sponsored by companies that put together trade shows and conferences for a variety of industries.
Two top FCC policy advisors have taken more than 100 trips each during the period. FCC commissioners have taken dozens of trips each, often staying at posh hotels or resorts on the industry tab. Some of the sponsors have special dinners or other events to honor the FCC officials in attendance. They are sometimes provided with cars and drivers.
The biggest industry sponsor of the trips was the National Association of Broadcasters, which paid $191,472 to bring 206 FCC officials to its events. NAB, which represents radio and television stations nationwide, has lobbied aggressively in recent months to keep the current FCC rules limiting media ownership in place.
Viacom, which owns CBS, sponsored seven trips on its own, costing $9,581. Viacom spent $6,901 to bring FCC Media Bureau Chief W. Kenneth Ferree and Susan Eid, a top legal advisor to Chairman Michael K. Powell, to a company management conference in March 2002. Ferree, the chief architect of the proposal to relax the media ownership rules, did not respond to an interview request from the Center.That was not always the case, however. Major networks Fox, CBS and NBC left the NAB two years ago because of the association's support for the current media ownership rules. The independent broadcasters who comprise the vast majority of NAB's membership worry they will be gobbled up by networks or media conglomerates if the rules are relaxed.
Other big sponsors include the California Cable Television Association (80 trips, $108,242); the Federal Communications Bar Association, which represents communications attorneys that practice before the agency and includes several FCC officials as members (74 trips, $42,399); the Association of Local Television Stations, and NATPE (70 trips, $58,813.36); the Telecommunications Industry Association (38 trips, $43,506); and the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association (34 trips, $30,601).The second biggest sponsor of trips was the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which spent $172,635 to bring 125 FCC officials to its events. Coming in third was the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, which spent $149,285 to bring 103 FCC officials to its events, primarily its glitzy annual Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas each year. CEMA heavily lobbies Congress and the FCC on a variety of issues including digital television, broadband deployment, consumer home recording rights and spectrum management.
FCC Chairman Powell has chalked up the most industry sponsored travel and entertainment among active commissioners during the period covered by the study—44 trips costing $84,921. Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, almost always flies first class due to a pelvis injury he suffered in a vehicle accident while serving in the U.S. Army. (See all of the trips taken by Powell)
Powell has been an unabashed proponent of deregulation throughout his tenure with the commission and has called for doing away with most or all of the current ownership restrictions, pointing out they were put in place before the advent of the Internet, cable and satellite broadcasting. He scheduled the June 2 meeting on the ownership rules, despite criticism from consumer groups and some fellow commissioners that the matter had not been properly vetted in public hearings.
Kathleen Abernathy, a commissioner since June 2001, took 14 trips costing $16,185. Michael Copps, a commissioner since June 2001, took 14 trips costing $15,410. Kevin Martin, a commissioner since July 2001 has taken 12 trips valued at $14,857. He took another seven trips valued at $8,966 while working in a previous job as a legal advisor at the agency. Jonathan Adelstein, who joined the commission in December 2002, took three trips costing $2,998. (See a complete list of trips by current and former FCC commissioners)
Powell did not respond to a request for an interview on his travel.
Abernathy declined to be interviewed about her travel, but issued a statement saying she at times accepts reimbursement from outside groups for travel expenses to conserve FCC resources.
"The Commissioner believes that meeting with a diverse range of groups, including industry, consumer groups, and other interested parties, serves a crucial information-gathering purpose that is necessary to effective decisionmaking," said the statement. "The Commissioner occasionally travels to meet with interested parties for this purpose, particularly where parties seek to provide a tour or demonstration that cannot be provided in Washington, D.C."
None of the trips examined were sponsored by consumer groups or individuals.
All of the trips appear to have been legal under government guidelines. Other agencies routinely accept similar travel and entertainment gifts.
An FCC ethics official, who spoke only on the condition his name not be revealed, says each trip is scrutinized by the agency's Office of General Counsel to make sure it is both legal and seemly.
"We first look to see if the sponsor has any matters before the agency and what those matters might be," said the ethics official. "With that as background, we talk to the individual and weigh if there will be appearance problems. There are a lot of safeguards built in."
The ethics official said almost all trips to major trade shows and industry conventions are approved, however. "On the big shows, there is an assumption that it will be widely attended by people representing a wide variety of viewpoints," he said. "Those are a lot less troublesome for us than smaller events where the attendees might all have the same viewpoint on a particular issue."
Telecommunication industry representatives and some FCC officials defend the trips, saying they help educate regulators on important issues and provide a voice to small companies and individuals who can't afford to travel to Washington or hire a lobbyist.
"We need to understand what the industry is doing and the industry needs to understand what we are doing," said Robert Pepper, chief of the FCC's Office of Plans and Policy, who took 104 trips costing $149,595 during the period studied, second highest among agency officials. "We need to get outside the Beltway in order to do that." (See complete listing of trips by Pepper)
Pepper said the FCC should pay for such trips in an ideal world, but that isn't possible in an age of tight agency budgets. "I'm not crazy about having the industry pick up the tab, but I think it is the second-best option we have in tight fiscal times like now," he said. "The other option is for us to just stay home. That doesn't benefit anyone."
An independent federal agency called the Office of Government Ethics collects summary reports on travel and entertainment paid for by sources other than Uncle Sam and is supposed to advise individual agencies on proper policies. The agency has no enforcement power, however, meaning that the ultimate authority on industry sponsored travel is the head of the individual agencies.
Office of Government Ethics Director Amy Comstock declined to be interviewed for this study. She said through a spokesperson that industry sponsored travel and its relation to government ethics were not subjects she comments on.
Some consumer advocates are less hesitant to speak out. They say that the trips are unseemly and represent an improper coziness between FCC officials and the businesses they regulate.
"It is silly to say they [FCC officials] don't lose some of their objectivity when they are being wined and dined like they are at these industry events," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. "You would have to be superhuman not to."
Other critics worry that the trips could dull the objectivity of FCC officials and make the agency too chummy with the huge and politically powerful industry it is supposed to regulate. What's more, they say, the industry enjoys much better access to FCC officials because of the trips, access that isn't available to the public.
"The problem for me is the access and the personal face time the industry gets with these top officials they bring out to their events," said Andrew Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, a consumer advocacy group that works on telecommunications issues. "It's impossible for the public to get the same kind of access with those officials."
One government and business ethics expert says he is particularly troubled by situations where the FCC has sent many people to the same event, all on the industry tab.
"Large numbers of people going to a single event almost always causes an appearance problem, even if everything is on the up-and-up," said Stuart Gilman, president of the Ethics Resource Center, a Washington group that advises businesses and non-profits on ethics issues. Gilman was a top official at the federal government's Office of Government Ethics from 1988 to 2001.
Each year a large contingent of FCC officials head off to certain big events sponsored by broadcast and telecommunications associations.
The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association paid $45,737 to bring 27 FCC officials to its glitzy Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Most were put up at the glittery Bellagio Hotel & Casino. The association provided cars and drivers for some of the officials, including Chairman Powell and Commissioner Abernathy.
The National Association of Broadcasters spent $24,601 to bring 14 FCC officials to its annual convention in Las Vegas in 2002, including Chairman Powell and Commissioners Copps and Martin. Not far behind was the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which paid $21,447 to bring 13 FCC officials to its annual convention in Chicago last year, including Chairman Powell and Commissioner Copps.
That was down from previous years for the NAB and NCTA conventions, however.
In 1999, NAB spent $26,113 to bring 27 FCC officials to its convention and NCTA spent $32,060 to bring 25 FCC officials to its convention.
Although they brought fewer FCC officials to their conventions last year, both NAB and NCTA spent more in travel and entertainment on each person.
NAB spent an average of $1,757 in travel and entertainment for each FCC official it brought to its 2002 convention, compared to an average of $967 in 1999. NCTA spent an average of $1,650 per FCC official for its 2002 convention, compared to an average of $1,282 in 1999.
Gilman said he would take a long, hard look at any event where more than two officials from a single agency attended on the industry tab.
"Are they sending the right message to the public if every commissioner and every senior bureaucrat head off to a single event every year?" said Gilman. "Are they maintaining an appearance of impartiality?"
Some critics of the current system say having the agency pay for all trips would help maintain a clear and proper separation between FCC officials and the industries they regulate.
But some FCC officials and industry representatives say having the FCC pay for all travel would effectively isolate the agency and rob smaller players of input in the decision making process.
"If you are a regulator proposing rules that can affect thousands of employees, it is only sensible to learn as much as you can about that business," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "To the critics, I would say the alternative is to have the taxpayers pay the freight for this type of trip. At the end of the day, everyone wants informed decisions."
Taxpayers do pick up some of the tab on many of the industry-sponsored trips.
For example, Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy traveled to France last November to attend a conference sponsored by IDATE, a foundation supported by about 20 international technology firms including Motorola, Nortel and IBM.
IDATE paid $2,646 for Abernathy's flight, hotel and transportation to and from the airport for the two-day conference in Montpellier, France, located in the south of France on the Mediterranean Sea. Abernathy was also reimbursed $175 by the FCC for three days of per diem meal expenses she incurred on the trip.
In February 2003, the FCC's Competition Policy Division Deputy Chief Gregory Cooke traveled to London to attend a conference on European telephone directories. The sponsor, a conference company called Whitaker Associates, paid $900 to cover Cooke's airfare, lodging and some meals. He was reimbursed $629 by the FCC for the rest of his expenses for the trip.
Former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth says he found industry-funded trips useful, although he would have preferred to have had them paid for by the agency if funds had been available.
"It almost always benefits the public because the commissioners are better informed when it comes time to make decisions," said Furchtgott-Roth, who took 58 industry sponsored trips costing $51,483 during his tenure as a commissioner from November 1997 to May 2001.
Roy Stewart, chief of the Office of Broadcast License Policy in the FCC's Media Bureau, took 107 trips, more than any other FCC employee. Until last year, Stewart had been head of the agency's Mass Media Bureau since 1989. He lost that job in a restructuring ordered by Powell in March 2002. That restructuring put Stewart under new Media Bureau Chief Ferree, a former communications lawyer who first met Powell in college at Georgetown.
Stewart says he considers travel to industry events a major part of his job.
"It is important for a government official like me to sit in a room with the industry and hear their concerns," said Stewart. "Then it is my job to come back and relate those concerns to the chairman and the commissioners."
Furchtgott-Roth says commissioners and top FCC staff are in constant demand as speakers and must carefully choose which events they attend.
"Everyone on the commission could go to a lot more events if we chose to, but, frankly, most of them just aren't that much fun," he said. "I tried to pick events where I could get my message out to a lot of people and media or where I could gather a lot of information about the industry folks who don't have the time or money to get to Washington or hire a lobbyist."
Pepper, the Office of Plans and Policy chief, said he turned down far more events than he actually attended, even though he took 104 trips on the industry tab.
"Frankly, I could have traveled five days a week, 52 weeks a year if I had chosen to," he said. "I have always been very selective. I have to be.
Furchtgott-Roth says he never voted one way or another on a particular issue because he had accepted travel and entertainment from an industry group or individual business. He said he doesn't believe any other commissioner has, although he said the practice probably raises some legitimate questions.
"I understand people questioning there being so many of these trips, particularly when the same people seem to be going to the same events year after year," he said. "It's important to remember, however, that this is a big part of the jobs of many FCC officials, including the commissioners. They have an obligation to educate themselves and help educate others."
Schwartzman of the Media Access Project says it is probably beneficial, in an odd way, that top FCC officials attend the same big events each year.
"If they get lobbied hard at the broadcasters convention in April, the odds are they will get lobbied just as hard by the other side at the cable convention in May," said Schwartzman. "I don't doubt that they hear a variety of views as a result of all the different events they attend each year."
But there is one group FCC officials rarely or ever hear from on the convention and conference circuit, according to Schwartzman. The public.
"The only ones getting left out of this whole process are the public," said Schwartzman. "That is the real problem here.