FCC called flat-footed on enforcement

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If the FCC were a cop on the beat, Congressional watchdogs contend, it would have a lousy conviction record. They find that most of the commission's investigations fail to result in any enforcement.

According to a report released Thursday by the General Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, only about 9% of the completed investigations resulted in enforcement action, while 83% resulted in no enforcement.

The GAO said it could not determine why the investigations were closed without action because "FCC does not systematically collect these data."

Congressional critics of the agency brandished the report as indicating the commission's lack of respect for the consumers it is supposed to protect.

"When more than 80% of complaints investigated by the FCC are closed without any meaningful enforcement action, and it isn't possible to determine why no action was taken, then it appears that the FCC has abdicated its duty to protect consumers," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

Dingell, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has launched a wide-ranging investigation into FCC practices. On Wednesday he asked the agency for a potential treasure-trove of documents as he seeks to ferret out possible agency misconduct (HR 3/13).

While agency officials admitted that their record-keeping needed to be modernized, they defended their actions. The commission contends that only 3% of its investigations were concluded without taking action.

"Since I became chairman, the Enforcement Bureau is responding to 100% of consumer complaints," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said. "Additionally, under my chairmanship, the commission has collected a record amount of fines, forfeitures and consent decree payments."

A letter to the GAO posted on the commission's Web site accused the GAO of missing important data or using data that was out of date.

The GAO analysis examined data encompassing 454,000 complaints between 2003 and 2006. The GAO said the FCC processed about 95% of the complaints it received; it opened about 46,000 investigations and closed 39,000.

The overseers' report noted that complaints rose 40% from 2003 through 2006. Telemarketers generated the most complaints. Most were related to alleged violations of the do-not-call list calls made during prohibited hours. Billing rates for both wired and wireless telephone providers were second.

Indecency complaints and investigations numbered 3,539, according to the GAO, and 3,048 according to the FCC.

While the commission disagreed with the GAO's numbers, Ensslin said the commission was taking action on the investigators' recommendations, upgrading its record-keeping and making the complaint process more user-friendly.

"Specifically, the GAO put forward valuable recommendations in the areas of enforcement data collection and analysis and performance management practices," Martin said. "Prior to the issuance of this report, the commission had identified these issues and is already in the process of implementing measures to address them."
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