Biden FCC Pick to Face Renewed Scrutiny at Wednesday Hearing
WASHINGTON — President Biden’s controversial pick to join a vacant seat on the Federal Communications Commission will face renewed scrutiny this week after the Senate panel considering her nomination yanked a vote on it last week and scheduled a second confirmation hearing instead.
That hearing, announced by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, will be held Wednesday, Feb. 9 beginning at 10 a.m. in the Russell Committee Hearing Room.
The hearing will be livestreamed here.
Republicans oppose Gigi Sohn’s nomination for a variety of reasons, including her perceived partisanship — as evidenced, they say, by her frequent past criticisms of Fox News.
A number of them also object to the role she played in crafting the “net neutrality” rules pushed during the Obama administration that placed new regulatory burdens on cable companies and internet service providers, treating them as utilities when it comes to distributing their content.
Much of the questioning from Republicans on Wednesday is expected to focus on new details that have emerged about Sohn and her connection to a now-defunct telecom nonprofit called Locast, which a federal judge found was illegally transmitting local television content.
Also likely to be probed are consulting fees and other payments included in Sohn’s updated financial disclosure statement, which was released Friday.
The scheduling of Wednesday’s hearing is also a wake-up call to the impact of the recent stroke suffered by Sen. Ben Ray Luján.
Luján suffered a stroke just over a week ago while visiting his home state of New Mexico and had surgery to ease swelling in his brain. The senator is expected to make a full recovery, and his chief of staff has said he could return to work in four to six weeks.
It is now clear, however, that his temporary absence will cause delays in confirming administration nominees like Sohn and advancing critical parts of the Biden agenda.
On the Senate Commerce Committee, of which Luján is a member, his absence left the panel deadlocked on Sohn’s nomination.
The panel has also temporarily pulled the nomination of Alvaro Bedoya from consideration to serve on the Federal Trade Commission.
As for Locast, the backstory goes like this:
In 2018, David Goodfriend, a former Clinton administration aide who went on to help found the progressive Air America Radio, created an entirely new business model intended to provide people who couldn’t afford it with free cable access to locally produced and streaming content.
The service operated as a nonprofit, asking only for modest monthly donations, and its proponents argued that lassoing others’ content and distributing it didn’t violate the law so long as Locast didn’t make any money off the transaction.
Goodfriend, who is an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, tapped fellow Georgetown law professor Sohn as an advisor.
Not surprisingly, the big broadcast media companies sued Locast, accusing it of violating the copyrights on their material.
In September, U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton ruled in favor of the broadcasters, holding Locast owed about $32 million in damages.
The nonprofit was dead, but settlement talks continued.
In the end, both Goodfriend and Sohn signed the settlement — she, a day after she was nominated to fill the FCC vacancy.
After Sohn’s initial appearance before the Senate committee in December, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking Republican on the panel, asked her in writing how Locast came up with the full $32 million payment to the broadcasters.
Sohn explained the amount would come from “the amount collected to fund [Locast’s] operation after [Locast] pays its vendors.”
Since then, however, copies of the settlement agreement have circulated among Republican lawmakers and they appear to show the settlement required a payment of only about $700,000 plus the value of any equipment and real estate Locast owned.
That prompted calls for a new hearing. Previewing the likely tone of the inquiry, Wicker has said, “My initial review of the confidential settlement raises several troubling questions about Sohn’s nomination.”
Sohn’s disclosure form contains few revelations. One was that she earned $149,076 in consulting fees from Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law & Policy.
The disclosure also showed she received $137,002 in consulting fees from the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, a group that supports net neutrality provisions and advocates for providing broadband.
Dan can be reached at email@example.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.
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