Senator Grassley's Bizarre Behavior (updated)

(Here's one view of Grassley's investigation of the LightSquared project, which I haven't previously covered at this blog. For balance I've added several statements from Grassley in the comments blow. Incidentally, Grassley did change his position on PIPA last month.   - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Many of us who became bloggers did so to keep politicians honest. As that pertains to our Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, it seems to be getting more difficult these days. Let's just peruse the docket of recent Grassley behavior as summarized by Howie Klein at Down With Tyranny:

Grassley viciously attacked Office of Legal Counsel chief Virginia Seitz because he doesn't like an opinion of hers– something even a former Bush appointee to this position, Jack Goldsmith, referred to as “name callling” and “misplaced.”

He was so rude to the victims of the massacre in Tuscon a year ago that they sent him a letter demanding an apology. And recently the hacker group Anonymous saw him as such a corporate shill for SOPA and PIPA that out of all the corporate whores whose Twitter accounts they could have hacked they thought Grassley's made the most sense.
Quite a list. But, as Howie points out, it gets even worse, when considering the shameful way he played the role of the demagogue in his witch hunt conducted at the expense of telecom company Lightsquared:

Without getting too much into the technical aspects of this fight, a small company, Lightsquared, wants to provide Americans with more options in their telecom choices. But major GPS players claim that their signal is being distorted by the Lightsquared signal, so they used the post-9/11 fear tactics we've gotten to know so well, warning Americans about “planes falling out of the sky” so they wouldn't have to participate in fixing this problem–and could make Lightsquared go away. Here is Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, a well-respected authority on spectrum challenges, on this problem:

Now make no mistake, Grassley's smears of Lightsquared, as Democratic Party crony capitalism, as dangerous to GPS, have actually led a staff member at the FCC to refer to what he's doing as “McCarthyism.”
The truth is that the interference in the GPS signal “is a result of GPS devices receiving signals from outside of their designated frequencies.” And whatever money Lightsquared did or did not give to any politicians, it might make one suspicious that Grassley's 4th and 5th biggest financial backers stand to gain handsomely from Lightsquared's failure.
So why is he trying to destroy a company that will create more telecom competition, generally a very good thing in our almost monopolistic system? That would be a good question to ask the Senator. You might want to also ask him why he doesn't devote the same level of due diligence to his backers who stand to benefit from this. For example, Deere & Co, his #4 financial backer, who is being investigated for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for bribing officials abroad. 
So give the Senator a call and be polite. But firmly ask these questions, as they need to be answered if there to be any transparency when it comes to his recent bizarre actions.
Disclosure: I am not an official for Lightsquared. I am also not being compensated for this. As a long-time tech enthusiast, though, I am a big believer in the idea of expanding broadband access to all, especially in rural areas, so that all have an equal opportunity to access the greatest storehouse of human knowledge and wisdom: the open Internet. 
LATE UPDATE from desmoinesdem: the FCC withdrew its preliminary approval to LightSquared. I posted Grassley's statement in the comments. 
  • I haven't followed this controversy

    for other perspectives on the Senate investigation, see here and here. A House subcommittee held a hearing on this issue yesterday.

    I’m posting some of Grassley’s statements on Lightsquared below.

  • Grassley's side of the story

    “Q & A” released by his office on December 9, 2011:

    Q:        Why have you taken on the Federal Communications Commission?

    A:        More than seven months ago, I started asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for information that would shed light on the agency’s apparent rush to approve the LightSquared project.  Until public outcry, the agency was allowing LightSquared to move forward on a fast track with its plans for a nationwide wireless network, despite serious concerns of interference with the GPS systems used widely in military, aviation, emergency response venues, and even agriculture.  The agency has refused to provide the public with insight into its approval process.  This is of tremendous concern because the FCC controls a big part of the economy with its decisions about which companies can access highly valuable broadcast spectrum space.  The FCC conducts the public’s business, and the public’s business ought to be public.

    Q:        Is there a way to make the FCC respond to your efforts for accountability?

    A:        To date, the FCC has provided none of the information and found excuses not to provide the information.  Even the private companies involved – LightSquared and Harbinger Capital Partners (the hedge fund backing the project) – have promised to be more forthcoming than the FCC, even though the FCC is a public agency funded by the taxpayers.  LightSquared and Harbinger Capital promised to provide me with requested documents on their dealings with the FCC this month.  As a last resort to try to exhort more transparency and accountability from the FCC, I’ll be placing a Senate hold on consideration of two nominees, a Democrat and a Republican, to serve as FCC commissioners.

    Q:        What’s at stake beyond accountability and the integrity of the FCC’s approval process?

    A:        This week, it was disclosed that Harbinger Capital Partners and fund owner Philip Falcone have received what’s called a Wells Notice from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  Last April, in my initial letter to the FCC on its decision to fast-track the LightSquared project, I noted that the hedge fund faced ongoing SEC investigations.  In July, I followed up by writing a letter that asked FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski if he was concerned about these multiple SEC investigations of Mr. Falcone related to market manipulation, especially since the FCC had granted Mr. Falcone’s company a $10 billion victory with LightSquared following an unusual, shortened public comment period.  While the Wells Notice does not mean the SEC definitely will take action against Mr. Falcone and his hedge fund, it does show that the SEC staff believes there is sufficient evidence to consider recommending an enforcement action.  Now the FCC is faced with the real possibility that it made a multi-billion-dollar grant of valuable spectrum to someone who could be charged with violating securities laws.  When I raised this concern seven months ago, the FCC Chairman was dismissive.  Now, more than ever, the FCC chairman should lead the effort to provide documents and offer insight into how the agency decided to give Mr. Falcone, Harbinger Capital Partners, and LightSquared this multi-billion-dollar grant. The public spectrum is a valuable asset that the Federal Communications Commission is responsible for protecting.  It’s unclear what would happen if a company gets access to a piece of this spectrum property and then falls apart.

    He confirmed on December 8 that he would block confirmation of two FCC nominees over this controversy:

    Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa today made the following comment regarding his intention to place a hold on two nominees for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) when the nominees are placed on the Senate calendar for consideration.

    “More than seven months ago, I started asking the FCC for information that would shed light on the agency’s apparent rush to approve the LightSquared project.  The agency has provided none of the information and found excuses not to provide the information.  Even the private companies involved, LightSquared and Harbinger Capital, have promised to be more forthcoming than the FCC as a public agency funded by the taxpayers.  LightSquared and Harbinger Capital promised to provide me with requested documents on their dealings with the FCC this week.  As a last resort to try to exhort more transparency and accountability from the FCC, I’ll place a hold on consideration of the agency nominees on the Senate floor.  This agency controls a big part of the economy.  It conducts the public’s business.  And the public’s business ought to be public.”

  • one more statement from Grassley

    For Immediate Release

    Monday, January 23, 2012

    Grassley Pursues Details of Questionable Contact Related to LightSquared

    WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa today asked the principal behind the LightSquared wireless project to explain a questionable contact to Grassley’s office that intimated benefits for Grassley if he softened his inquiry of government approval of the project.

    Grassley wrote to Philip Falcone of Harbinger Capital Partners, expressing concern that two separate incidents implied a desire to have Grassley “pull punches” in his investigation.  Grassley said he “won’t be a part of that.”  One contact came in an email from Falcone to Grassley’s office, saying that since LightSquared is already in the political “arena,” it could be made a “win” for Grassley, LightSquared, and the consumer.

    The second contact was from someone who intimated that he represented LightSquared in a call to Grassley’s staff.  The individual, Todd Ruelle, said he “only gets paid if this deal goes through” and hinted that if LightSquared were allowed to proceed, Grassley’s home state of Iowa could get a “call center.”   Grassley’s office advised Ruelle not to contact the office further and called the Senate ethics committee regarding the contact.

    Ruelle also was named in emails made public through a separate inquiry.  In the emails, Ruelle corresponded with Fox News Channel bookers over making arrangements for a Falcone appearance.  After Ruelle forwarded these e-mails to a government official, the government official asked Ruelle to cease communicating with him.

    Grassley wrote to Falcone, asking him to explain whether he and/or LightSquared have a relationship with Ruelle and if so, to provide details.

    Since last April, Grassley has been reviewing why the Federal Communications Commission rushed approval of the LightSquared project without adequately exploring what turned out to be  widespread concerns of interference with the Global Positioning System devices widely used by the military, first responders, aviation, precision agriculture, and consumer navigation.

    The text of Grassley’s letter to Falcone is available here.  The attachments are available here, here and here.

    After reading the letter and the attachments, it sounds to me like Grassley is raising some reasonable questions. For what it’s orth, Lightsquared has said Ruelle never worked for them.

    I have no clue about the technical side of this–what Harold Feld said in the video you posted sounded reasonable, but I don’t have the expertise to know out whether tests on GPS interference were rigged, as Lightsquared claims.

    • Lightsquared vs. GPS

      I am no fan of Senator Grassley, but in this case I think he is actually working in the best interests of Iowa and the nation.

      I have worked in the GPS industry for nearly two decades. I am also familiar with the testing that was done on many types of GPS receivers to measure the effects of the proposed Lightsquared emissions on receiver performance. The test results were not rigged– Lightsquared’s proposal would have serious implications for GPS reception and GPS is now a key part of our infrastructure in ways that most people do not realize.

      Lightsquared proposes to use spectrum adjacent to the GPS band that is currently used primarily for space-to-earth transmissions, which are at extremely low power levels on the surface of the earth and so do not cause interference with GPS. Lightsquared’s proposal is for high power terrestrial transmission of broadband data in this band, at levels never contemplated by any receiver manufacturer. I am all in favor of trying to expand the availability of broadband services, but Lightsquared’s proposal was fast-tracked through the FCC’s regulatory process, so that there was essentially no opportunity to comment. (Allegedly because of connections with the Obama administration.)

      The testing of the original Lightsquared proposal showed that there would have been severe degradation in the use of GPS in large areas surrounding their transmitters. Lightsquared implicitly acknowledged this fact by modifying their proposal to give a bigger spectrum buffer to GPS. However, many existing receivers would still be adversely affected by this modified proposal. There is some truth to Lightsquared’s assertion that GPS receivers could be designed to tolerate the emissions of this revised proposal, but this is changing the ground rules for literally tens of thousands of GPS receivers, many functioning in safety of life or critical infrastructure applications.

      I don’t think that Lightsquared set out to damage GPS. But I do believe that over the past few administrations that the FCC has become beholden to political and money interests, while being hollowed-out technically, thus allowing a flawed concept to go forward without adequate review.

  • Well, good luck

    Tom Harkin is also a signatory to the May letter to the FCC questioning the waiver and asking for it to be rescinded. Unsurprisingly, so are a number of Democratic US Senators from the Midwest.

    Deere’s precision agriculture is an incredible feat and is one of the areas where the US is a leader. Those who are interested can read more here.

    The truth is that the interference in the GPS signal “is a result of GPS devices receiving signals from outside of their designated frequencies.”

    If this is the truth, then what do you propose? GPS is an entrenched system. I do not agree with the attitude of “not getting into technical aspects,” while shouting about contributions from Deere.

    As a consumer, I have no bone to pick with Lightsquared’s model — in fact, I see benefits. However, when you have Deere and nine govt agencies, including the DOD mad at you and claiming interference after testing, I’d be careful about making this all about Grassley.

    If your DC-based consultancy is blogging on behalf of any interested party, you should disclose in fairness to all.

    • I have asked the author

      to update the post clarifying whether he is blogging on behalf of an interested party.

      No elected official from Iowa in either party is ever going to take a public stand against Deere’s interests.

      I don’t know about the technical side. Both “conspiracies” sound plausible to me–the idea that LightSquared bought favors from the FCC and the idea that big GPS companies bought skewed tests and favors from other government agencies.

  • Grassley statement of February 15

    Since last April, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa has asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for documents related to the agency’s decision to fast-track the LightSquared broadband wireless project, despite concerns of widespread interference with global-positioning system devices.  The agency has refused to provide any documents.  Now, the FCC is withdrawing the preliminary approval it gave to LightSquared because of interference with GPS devices.  Grassley made the following comment on his inquiry.

    “The FCC’s action seems to acknowledge the point I’ve been making since April.  Prematurely granting a conditional waiver in a rushed process is not the way to get the right result.  Now that the interference issue is settled, we need to find out more than ever why the FCC did what it did.  The agency put this project on a fast track for approval with what appears to have been completely inadequate technical research.  After all of this time and expense, still, no one outside of the agency knows why.  That’s not the way the people’s government should work.  The public’s business ought to be public.  Now that the FCC has backtracked on LightSquared, I’d like to see my Senate colleagues join my document request, especially the chairman of the only Senate committee that the FCC is willing to answer.  If we don’t find out how and why the FCC failed to avoid this controversy, then it will keep operating as a closed shop instead of the open, publicly accountable agency it should be.”


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