Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai's delivers remarks during a hearing where the FCC took up the issue of net-neutrality, at the FCC on December 14, 2017 in Washington, D.C. On Thursday, lawmakers said Pai was under investigation for his ties to Sinclair Broadcasting.
Sinclair's chief executive, Chris Ripley, has called Pai's relaxation of media ownership rules a "landmark" development for his company and the industry. When the legislators called for an investigation in November, a spokesman for the FCC, representing Pai, said the allegations of favoritism were "baseless".
The inquiry could also add ammunition to arguments against the Sinclair-Tribune deal.
The Federal Communications Commission past year updated its broadcasting ownership regulations just weeks before Sinclair Broadcasting announced its plan to purchase Tribune Media. Frank Pallone, wants to know if Pai's meetings with Sinclair executives in the weeks before the rule change were proper.
Pai has maintained that the rule changes were under consideration before the Sinclair merger.
Under Pai's leadersip, the FCC has taken several steps to boost Sinclair's business interests.
Sinclair's top lobbyist, a former FCC official, also communicated frequently with former agency colleagues and pushed for the relaxation of media ownership rules.
Pai has rolled back a number of decisions of his predecessor, Tom Wheeler, that he opposed and criticized at the time they were approved, including 2014 guidance on how the FCC would treat joint sales agreements and sharing arrangements between noncommonly owned stations; restoring the FCC's UHF discount; and two proposals scheduled for a vote this week (Nov. 16) - potentially eliminating or loosening some media ownership limits, and allowing for the rollout of ATSC 3.0 transmissions.
Critics of the deal have argued the FCC revised its rules - which prevented a single company from controlling too many broadcast stations and from controlling more than a single broadcaster in the same market - because of Sinclair's friendly treatment of President Donald Trump.
"For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai's relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting", Pallone, the top Democrat on the committee that oversees the FCC, said.
Some members of Congress have asked Pai for such communications, but he has not responded.
The aides, all of whom work for Democratic lawmakers, would speak only on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is private.
"An investigation could cast a cloud over the whole process", said Andrew Schwartzman, a senior fellow at Georgetown Law Center's Institute for Public Representation.
"We have strong concerns that the FCC's ongoing review of the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media may be tainted by a series of actions and events that raise questions about the independence and impartiality of the FCC", wrote the senators to FCC Inspector General David Hunt.
Information for this article was contributed by Todd Shields of Bloomberg News.