Congressional Republicans are demanding an investigation into LightSquared’s contacts with White House officials—and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions the company made to Democrats and President Obama—as it sought government approval to operate its broadband network.
Rep. Michael Turner, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, cited an iWatch News report in calling for the investigation. iWatch News revealed Wednesday that on the same day that LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja made a $30,400 contribution to the Democratic Party, two of his deputies appealed to the White House for meetings with top technology advisers to Obama.
“In my capacity as a member of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, I will be asking Chairman (Darrell) Issa and Ranking Member Towns to promptly investigate this matter," Turner said Thursday.”
A spokeswoman for Issa said the request has been received and is under review.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has tried for months to gain access to White House and Federal Communications Commission records on LightSquared, also called for a probe of the Virginia company’s dealings. The FCC on January 26 gave the company conditional approval to operate.
“The emails show that LightSquared representatives cited political connections and friendships to get an audience with White House staff. It’s in the public’s interest to know whether the same dynamic exists between LightSquared and the FCC as well,” Grassley wrote.
“If so, political connections don’t necessarily drive policy decisions, but in the absence of transparency at the FCC, it’s impossible to know one way or the other. The FCC’s refusal to make documents public continues to give the appearance that there’s something to hide."
Turner’s comments came during a contentious hearing Thursday—to which LightSquared was not invited to testify—in which several witneseses criticized the company’s $14 billion venture to expand broadband communications as a possible threat to national security. Among the critics is the head of the Air Force Space Command.
LightSquared promises to create thousands of jobs and provide broadband wireless service to more than 260 million Americans. But its critics contend that its operations could cripple Global Positioning Systems, or GPS, gear and threaten aviation safety, disrupt military and rescue operations—and even interfere with cell phones.
Emails and other records released to iWatch News reveal that LightSquared’s reach into the administration was more extensive than officials have acknowledged. The records also show that White House technology officials were advised of serious concerns among GPS proponents over the possible threat to air traffic control and other critical emergency responders.
Though White House officials redacted significant portions of more than 300 pages of emails and other records, the documents richly illustrate how big industries can power their way into government corridors in Washington.
“Hi Aneesh!” LightSquared representative Dave Kumar wrote to Aneesh Chopra , the president’s chief technology adviser on Sept. 23, 2010. “I touched base with my client Sanjiv Ahuja and he expressed an interest in meeting with you…He is going to be in DC next week for a fundraising dinner with the President.”
Earlier that same day, LightSquared lawyer Henry Goldberg wrote to James Kohlenberger , then chief of staff for the White House Office of Science and Technology. His email said:
“You may recall that you met with Sanjiv Ahuja about a year ago, with Phil Falcone of Harbinger, as Phil & Sanjiv were finalizing their plans for a new wireless broadband network…
“Sanjiv will be at a fund-raiser dinner with the President on September 30 and would like to visit with you, perhaps Tom Kalil, and Aneesh Chopra, if at all possible.”
Falcone, a New York hedge fund manager, is the principal owner of LightSquared and Ahuja its CEO. Kalil is deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Chopra is the White House Chief Technology Officer.
At Thursday's hearing, Turner also took aim at FCC chief Julius Genachowski, a last minute no-show. Turner said Genachowski had refused to appear before the committee, which he called an “affront to the House Armed Services Committee.”
“I trust Chairman Genachowski is doing something very important this morning if he couldn’t be here to discuss the significant harm to national security that may result from the FCC’s action on Jan. 26 of this year,” Turner said.
Critics of LightSquared listed a litany of pitfalls Thursday, though the company has said those fears are exaggerated.
Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, testified that test results indicated LightSquared’s signals would interfere with a range of military equipment and “effectively jam vital GPS receivers.”
He said aviation receivers operating as far as 7.5 miles from LightSquared transmitters completely lost GPS and were degraded out to distances of more than 16.5 miles. He also said that GPS would “be completely unusable” for an aircraft 500 feet above the ground in an area spanning from Northern Virginia, through Washington and Baltimore, and out to Frederick, Md.
In response to questions, Shelton said that fixing the problem could cost billions of dollars, if the problems could even be remedied.
LightSquared did not return a phone call seeking comment. However, in a statement to iWatch News earlier this week, company CEO Sanjiv Ahuja denied that the company has tried to use its influence in Washington, or that its operations pose any threat.
“Any suggestion that we have run roughshod over the regulatory process is contradicted by reality: Our plans to begin implementing America's first privately funded, wholesale, affordable, coast-to-coast wireless broadband service have been delayed for a year and we have been forced to commit more than $100 million to find a solution that will allow consumers to benefit from both our service and GPS,” he said.
Ahuja said that the company had been “unable to even get the House Armed Services Committee to allow us to have one representative” at Thursday's hearing. The White House did not respond to a request for comment by Thursday evening.
Turner likened the growing political storm over LightSquared to Solyndra, the now bankrupt company that had been touted as a model of Obama's ambitious green energy program. The solar company shut down after receiving a $535 million federal loan guarantee and the FBI has searched the firm’s California headquarters while several govenrment agencies investigate.
“We cannot afford to have federal telecommunications policy, especially where it affects national security, to be made in the same way that the White House parceled out a half billion dollars in loan guarantees to the failed Solyndra Corporation, a large political campaign contributor of the president,” Turner said.