The FCC’s Republicans went to a conservative confab. One won a gun, the other an ethics complaint.


The Federal Communications Commission's Republican majority arrived at an annual gathering of influential conservatives hoping to tout their business bona fides — from freeing the Internet from government’s grasp to battling back the efforts of their Democratic predecessors. Instead, the appearance by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and his GOP colleagues  offered an unexpected brush with a national battle over gun control — and a new ethics complaint targeting FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly for his comments about President Donald Trump.

O’Rielly's trouble started with a question about what the FCC could do to stop the constant “ping-pong” of issues, like net neutrality, every time the party in power changes. “I think what we can do is make sure as conservatives that we elect good people to both the House, Senate and make sure that President Trump gets reelected,” Commissioner O’Rielly began. His plug for the president riled some ethics watchdogs. Under a set of rules known as the Hatch Act, government officials like Commissioner O’Rielly generally aren’t supposed to use their stations to advocate for election outcomes.

President Trump is already a candidate for the 2020 presidential race; he has filed his paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. The early nature of his candidacy even prompted the Office of Special Counsel to issue guidance in February 2017 as to what Trump administration officials could and could not say about their boss’s upcoming campaign. In short, the OSC ruled that the Hatch Act does “prohibit federal employees, while on duty or in the workplace, from expressly advocating for or against his reelection in 2020.” Citing that guidance, one organization — American Oversight, a nonprofit group backed by many Democrats that seeks to target the Trump administration on ethics issues — said it would file a complaint against Commissioner O’Rielly with the OSC. Its leader, Austin Evers, also called in a statement for O’Rielly to resign.

A spokeswoman for O’Rielly said in a statement: “Commissioner O’Rielly was asked a question on how to prevent the agency from ping ponging back and forth. He tried to respond in a factual way without engaging in advocacy.”

The FCC’s Republicans went to a conservative confab. One won a gun, the other an ethics complaint.