- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Conflicting assessments of the Federal Communications Commission’s handling of consumer complaints are so at odds they warrant a closer look.

At issue is a Government Accountability Office analysis that found fault with how the agency managed investigations of complaints between 2003 and 2006. The report criticized the media regulator’s data-collection practices and said it lacked a strategy for measuring effectiveness of its enforcement program. The FCC disputed both the findings and the methodology.

Among the FCC’s basic duties is processing consumer complaints of violations of the nation’s do-not-call list, broadcast decency standards and a plethora of other rules relating to communications services. The commission receives on average 100,000 such complaints each year.

The 58-page GAO assessment, released last week, said the FCC opened and closed 39,000 investigations — 83 percent with no enforcement action and action in 9 percent of cases. The GAO said it was unable to determine what occurred in the remaining cases.

The GAO report relied on information contained in the FCC’s computer databases. (The commission keeps paper files on its enforcement activities in some instances, such as field investigations.)

According to the FCC’s 109-page rebuttal, the commission initiated about 25,000 investigations during the 2003-06 period, not 39,000 — a discrepancy that stems from case consolidation as well as minor inquiries the agency did not classify as “investigations.” More important: Only 3 percent of agency investigations were closed without enforcement action, according to the commission. That figure is in stark contrast to the GAO’s 83 percent statistic.

The GAO report’s definition of “enforcement action” entails an admonishment, a cease-and-desist order, a citation, a decree or a fine.

The FCC, however, noted that it took such an action in 15 percent of cases while in 71 percent of investigations the purported violator was found to be in compliance. In the remaining 11 percent of cases, complaints reportedly did not include enough information to pursue further and were dismissed.

Here’s where things get a bit tricky. While the FCC does keep tabs on cases in which compliance was found or there wasn’t enough information, such data is collected in a text format on a case-by-case basis and not readily available as a numerical total for a bird’s-eye view.

In shop talk, the GAO report acknowledged the FCC’s objections but said it could not “identify a reliable variable in FCC’s enforcement database that clearly categorized the justifications for closing an investigation with no enforcement action.”

Mark Goldstein, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, said the bottom line “was they don’t have a reliable system that allows them to manage their enforcement.”

“Those numbers may or may not be accurate, but we can’t validate them,” he said.

FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said the agency knows its systems could use improvement and last year asked Congress for more money to upgrade its computer network.

“That addresses our back-office side, which was really where the GAO found fault and we are aware of that and we are working on it,” he said. “But on the performance side, we’re doing the job.”

Mr. Ensslin noted the commission issued a record $43 million in fines last year.

Channel Surfing runs Wednesdays. E-mail krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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