Democratic lawmakers have a message for Ajit Pai: Ignorance is no excuse.
Ahead of a US Senate oversight hearing this week, where the FCC chairman will face questions over the false statements he and his staff gave members of Congress, House members misled by the FCC are demanding answers of their own.
In a letter today, Democrats on the Energy & Commerce Committee said they were “deeply disturbed” by the conclusions of an FCC inspector general report, released last week, which found that senior Federal Communications Commission officials had, for more than a year, misled Congress and the American public about an alleged cyberattack investigators say never occurred.
In May 2017, the commission claimed it was the victim of multiple cyberattacks that, for several key hours, impaired its ability to accept public comments. At the time, the FCC was at collecting comments from the public concerning Chairman Pai’s decision to rollback Obama-era net neutrality protections, as required under the commission’s rule-making process.
The investigation initially centred on what FCC officials said were “multiple distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks” beginning on 7 May 2017. Upon determining, however, that the attacks never occurred, the probe shifted to focus on false statements provided to Congress by FCC staff, including inaccurate accounts of discussions with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Set to appear before a Senate oversight committee this week, Ajit Pai will face a barrage of questions about why senior officials at the agency he leads, the Federal Communications Commission, provided false information to Congress—a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, had it been proved they did so knowingly.
While not explicitly acknowledging his own misstatements to Congress, Pai sought to distance himself from responsibility one week ago by pinning the whole affair on what he said was “inaccurate information” given by his former chief information officer, Dr David Bray. (Bray was never interviewed about the incident, according to a statement relayed through a friend.)
“Given the significant media, public and Congressional attention this alleged cyberattack received for over a year, it is hard to believe that the release of the IG’s report was the first time that you and your staff realised that no cyberattack occurred,” the Democrats’ letter to Pai reads. “Such ignorance would signify a dereliction of your duty as the head of the FCC, particularly due to the severity of the allegations and the blatant lack of evidence.”
The letter is signed by Rep Frank Pallone Jr, ranking member of the Energy & Commerce Committee; Rep Mike Doyle, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology; Rep Debbie Dingell; and Rep Jerry McNerney.
We need answers about when @AjitPaiFCC knew no DDoS attack took place, and when @FCC knew they weren’t telling Congress the truth. My letter with @energycommerce here: https://t.co/QIvFvmOU0I https://t.co/4vopunVb0f
— Rep. Debbie Dingell (@RepDebDingell) August 14, 2018
Senior GOP lawmakers on the Energy & Commerce Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
The letter asks Pai to answer, before August 28, when he and his chief of staff, Matthew Berry, first became aware that the comment system issues were likely not caused by a DDoS attack; why he did not seek to correct his misrepresentations to Congress either publicly or on a confidential basis; and whether the inspector general’s office had specifically asked him not to disclose that his statements to Congress were false.
As of Friday, Pai had not been in touch with several lawmakers to whom he provided false information over the past year, Gizmodo reported. With Republicans in the majority, congressional Democrats have little authority to compel Pai to answer their questions.
“It is troubling that you allowed the public myth created by the FCC to persist and your misrepresentations to remain uncorrected for over a year,” the Democrats’ letter concludes. “To the extent that you were aware of the misrepresentations prior to the release of the Report and failed to correct them, such actions constitute a wanton disregard for Congress and the American public.”
Chairman Pai will appear before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation on Thursday, August 16, alongside fellow commissioners Michael O’Rielly, Brendan Carr and Jessica Rosenworcel.
The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.
Read the full letter below.