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Republicans Grill FCC Chairman on 'Secret Meetings' as FCC Inspector Reportedly Opens Inquiry

There may not have been any “secret instructions” from the White House, but there were a lot of secret meetings.

C-SPAN

House Republicans formally kicked off their offensive against FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Tuesday at the first of a series of hearings over the next week about the agency’s recently adopted rules for Internet lines.

Allegations of secret White House meetings to pressure Wheeler to adopt more restrictive net neutrality rules on Internet providers dominated the two-and-a-half-hour hearing, as Republicans produced internal FCC emails and agency calendars that suggested White House officials had been consulting with Wheeler on the proposed rules for months.

“There were no secret instructions from the White House,” Wheeler told lawmakers Tuesday, repeating that talking point over and over. Democratic lawmakers defended Wheeler and praised the new rules throughout the hearing.

Republicans’ focus on White House involvement in the Wheeler decision to re-regulate Internet lines shows how this is really more of a political sideshow than an earnest effort to overturn the new rules. There’s little chance they’d get enough votes to defeat President Obama’s likely veto of any such proposal anyway.

Meanwhile, the FCC’s Inspector General has launched an investigation into how the agency’s net neutrality rules were crafted, according to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who announced the development during the hearing. A spokesman for the FCC’s IG wouldn’t confirm or deny whether there is an investigation.

The FCC’s Inspector General isn’t exactly known for investigating the conduct of commissioners, so this might not amount to much. FCC investigators mostly focus on stopping fraud in the FCC’s multi-billion dollar federal subsidy program for phone and Internet services.

Wheeler visited the White House nine times to meet with various administration officials, House investigators reported during the hearing. Yet only one meeting was reported in the FCC’s public system for tracking who’s talking to FCC staff and commissioners.

Wheeler said there “was no need to have an ex parte filed” about the meetings, saying that he discussed a variety of topics with White House officials, including trade deals, airwaves auctions and other FCC issues.

But emails released by committee staff suggested that Wheeler wasn’t made particularly happy by President Obama’s decision to publicly endorse tougher net neutrality rules in November, a notion the FCC Chairman has been trying to damp down for weeks, saying he’d made a decision over the summer to take a harder-line approach than he originally considered.

David Krone, a former Comcast* executive who most recently served as then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s chief of staff, wrote in an email in mid-May to Wheeler that he’d asked the White House to “back off Title II” support for tougher net neutrality rules. “Went through again the problems it creates for us,” he wrote.

Chaffetz interrogated Wheeler throughout the hearing on the FCC’s lack of transparency, including his decision to not release a draft of the net neutrality rules before the agency voted to approve them as well as questionable redactions in internal emails that reporters have requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

There’s no rule prohibiting an FCC chairman from releasing proposed new rules before they’re adopted. Former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin released key sections of a controversial proposed change on media ownership rules in 2007. But that’s not generally been FCC practice, mostly, it seems, because staffers don’t want to deal with an onslaught of last-minute objections to rules.

“I really do believe that at the FCC and maybe other agencies there should be a 30-day notice” of rules before they’re adopted, Chaffetz said. “Give it the light of day.”

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.