Officials at the Federal Communications Commission have accepted nearly $2.8 million worth of free trips over the last eight years from regulated businesses, a new study reports.
Commissioners and staff members accepted nearly $450,000 in free travel from radio and TV broadcasters, a finding that is particularly sensitive as the agency moves to modify its media ownership rules.
Trips were taken by commissioners and staff members alike, under Republican and Democratic administrations. All three FCC chairmen since 1995, including current chairman, Michael K. Powell, have taken broadcast-funded trips, as have most commissioners during the period examined.
The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity said the expenditures raise questions about whether the FCC can remain independent as it embarks on a controversial reform of federal media ownership rules that stands to benefit broadcasters.
“FCC officials shouldn’t be taking money in the form of trips from a broadcast industry that is seeking deregulation,” said Charles Lewis, executive director of the center. “It’s a conflict of interest.”
An FCC spokesman said the trips allowed officials to interact with experts and educate themselves about pending issues. “The commission’s staff doesn’t want to be held captive to the Beltway,” FCC spokesman David Fiske said.
Fiske dismissed the notion that accepting industry-paid business trips would influence the agency’s five current commissioners, most of whom have accepted trips. Allowing private companies to pay enables the FCC to save taxpayer dollars, Fiske said, noting that all such travel must be cleared by the ethics office and disclosed.
The center said some business trips took place at posh beach resorts or vacation spots, such as Las Vegas and Honolulu.
The National Assn. of Broadcasters, for instance, paid $191,472 for trips since 1995, primarily to bring FCC officials to its meetings and conventions, such as the annual broadcast trade show in Las Vegas.
“We think it’s important for regulators and legislators to attend events that help them gain a greater understanding of challenges faced by free, over-the-air broadcasters,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.
Viacom Inc., parent of CBS, spent nearly $7,000 last year flying two FCC media advisors to a management retreat in Dana Point, according to a center database of expenditures.
Viacom officials could not be reached for comment.