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House members call for IG investigation tied to Ligado

A trio of House Armed Services Committee members are asking for an Inspector General investigation into whether a company that tested Ligado Networks for GPS interference and submitted that information to the Federal Communications Commission has a conflict of interest.

At the core of the members’ concerns is Dennis Roberson, the chairman of the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council. The TAC is a group of technology experts whose role is to help the FCC “identify important areas of innovation and develop informed technology policies,” per the commission website.

Roberson is also the head of Roberson and Associates, a consulting company that, in 2016, was hired by Ligado to perform a technical study on the potential interference to GPS — something the members say raises “a “troubling appearance of a conflict of interest” given Roberson’s ties to both Ligado and the TAC.

Roberson, however, denies any conflict of interest issues. “The Inspector General can review this, and I’m sure they will find it to be without merit as well, because of the way in which the FCC conducts its business,” he told C4ISRNET on Friday.

In an April 20 vote, the FCC unanimously supported Ligado’s request to use the L-band spectrum, despite heavy opposition from the DoD and other government agencies, as well as commercial trade groups, which believe the Ligado plan will damage the usability of GPS. On May 22, the federal government formally requested the FCC reconsider its position, but analysts do not expect such a reversal.

The letter, dated June 11, is addressed to FCC chairman Ajit Pai and signed by Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., the chairman of the HASC strategic forces subcommittee, Mike Turner, R-Oh., the ranking member on that same committee, and Elise Stefanik, R-NY., the ranking member on the subcommittee on intelligence, emerging threats, and capabilities.

The members note that the study done by Roberson’s company “is referenced more than eighty times in the [FCC’s] approval order and was clearly a significant factor in the Commission’s decision.” In addition, the members note, Roberson has written several public pieces supporting the FCC’s decision.

Congressional staffers, speaking on background to C4ISRNET, argued that together, those actions raise questions about whether Roberson gave impartial technical advice to the FCC.

“If you’re going to rely on this one test — and this one test is in opposition to the unanimous opinion of those entities that are going [are] most likely to be negatively impacted by this — [then] that test really has to be unassailable. There shouldn’t be things about it, or how it was put together, or the standards it should meet, that strikes anybody as odd,” said one HASC staffer. “It’s just irregular that you had somebody involved on both sides of the spectrum here.”

A second staffer said: “It looks strange. It’s raising a lot of questions, and so I think we need answers to these questions.”

There's concern that use of the L-band spectrum by Ligado Networks will harm GPS. (Pat Corkery/Lockheed Martin via AP)

Roberson told C4ISRNET he was “totally startled” by the member’s letter.

“This is upsetting. This is the sort of thing that discourages people from supporting and serving the government,” said Roberson, who has served on the TAC since its inception. “I’ve always viewed service on the TAC as a giving back kind of thing. I’ve been fortunate to be relatively successful through my life, and to be able to contribute in this way is something I’ve always felt really good about. To have it spun in the way this letter does, it’s hurtful on a personal level. It really is.”

While acknowledging that Ligado is currently a client, Roberson denied that the TAC had discussed the Ligado issue, saying the group is chartered to not deal with ongoing issues but rather look toward future concerns. He also noted that members of the TAC are specifically brought on board to represent their company’s viewpoints, consistent with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA.

The members requested Pai provide three pieces of information about Roberson’s involvement:

  • An “analysis” of how Roberson’s involvement in advising the FCC while leading the TAC after having previously worked for Ligado “does not, at minimum, give rise to the appearance” of a conflict of interest. Roberson, for his part, said “There was no discussion by me or anyone else about Ligado. It’s not something that would or should have been talked about. There’s no conflict there, could not be.”
  • Whether Roberson or commission staff has disclosed Roberson’s connection to Ligado to Pai. Roberson noted that his name is on multiple FCC fillings related to Ligado, and that he has been in meetings between Pai and Ligado officials. “If we were trying to keep it a secret that I was working with Ligado, we did a really horrible job,” he said.
  • The date on which Roberson was “briefed by Commission officials regarding his ethical responsibilities and duty to avoid” conflicts of interest. According to Roberson, this issue was most recently covered at the first TAC meeting of the year, in early March.

Most notably, the members requested that the matter be referred to the FCC’s Inspector General “for a review of the potential conflict of interest,” a move the Hill staffers acknowledge could potentially result in a delay of Ligado’s project moving forward.

“This is a long term process here to get to the end of this thing,” the first staffer said. “If this was a totally undisputed situation, it would take — the Ligado CEO is on record saying that he is at least 18 months away from having a network up and running. So yes, I think it would be our preference that we delay until we can get some sort of independent test to verify and resolve the concerns.”

A spokesman for the FCC said the commission will review the letter.

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