Nancy Pelosi is creating static over a deal to take a massive group of TV stations private — after she and fellow House Democrats got more than $500,000 in campaign donations from Byron Allen, a comedian-turned-media mogul who wants to block the deal.
The House Speaker sent an Oct. 6 letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel expressing “serious concerns” about an agreement by Tegna — a publicly traded chain of 64 local TV stations that was spun off from newspaper giant Gannett in 2015 — to sell itself to the hedge fund Standard General for $8.6 billion.
Meanwhile, Federal Election Commission filings show that in the fourth quarter of last year Pelosi got $271,300 in campaign donations from Allen, who owns a group of cable-TV networks including The Weather Channel and is angling to nab Tegna’s nationwide broadcasting empire to widen their distribution.
During the same quarter, Allen — who earlier this month made headlines for buying a $100 million estate in Malibu, Calif. — also donated $275,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which backs Democratic candidates for the House, FEC filings show.
“If she is helping out a major donor it doesn’t look good, quite frankly,” said Craig Holman, the Capitol Hill lobbyist for advocacy group Public Citizen who says he has worked on ethics issues with Pelosi for 20 years. “When it comes to campaign finance, this is often how it works. A donor gives money with the expectation of some return.”
Pelosi’s Oct. 6 letter came despite the fact there aren’t any Tegna TV stations in her San Francisco congressional district. The donation from Allen was his only on record to Pelosi. Allen cut the checks late last year as his own bid to buy Tegna began to unravel over financing problems, according to sources close to the situation. Tegna agreed to sell itself to Standard General in February.
“It is legal unless there is an actual agreement between the parties. Then it is a bribe,” Holman told The Post. “But when there is no obvious agreement, it does not run afoul of the law.”
In the letter, Pelosi, along with Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone Jr., said she was worried the deal would raise cable bills, crimp local news coverage and spur job losses. In a written response to the FCC, Standard General denied plans to diminish local coverage and cut station jobs, calling them speculation and saying it “made a commitment in the FCC record that it was not planning any such actions.”
Meanwhile, a source close to Allen’s company, Allen Media Group, said, “Byron was going to cut 30% of expenses if he bought Tegna and that meant job losses.”
“Not true,” countered Allen, when reached by The Post on Wednesday. “I have close to 2,300 employees and during the pandemic I did not lay off one worker.”
A spokesman for Pelosi, Henry Connelly, declined to comment on Allen’s donations. He said Pelosi and Pallone wrote to the FCC with similar concerns in 2017 about Sinclair Broadcasting’s proposal to buy stations from Tribune Broadcasting. That deal, which was scrapped a year later, had been controversial over Sinclair’s ties with Donald Trump.
“Evidently, there are some ‘legal experts’ who will be surprised to learn that the Speaker of the House of Representatives does in fact routinely weigh in on issues of national importance, not just her own district,” Connelly said in a statement. “Democrats have long expressed concerns to the FCC about the consolidation of local news outlets raising costs on consumers and hollowing out the local news reporting that is vital to the health of our democracy.”
Allen also told The Post his “donations to numerous Democratic politicians and PACs have nothing to do with Tegna and everything to do with protecting our democracy.”
An FCC spokeswoman said, “Under longstanding precedent, the Commission does not comment on pending transactions. In this case – as in all cases – the Commission has a statutory obligation to determine that an assignment or transfer serves the public interest.”
Insiders said Pelosi’s machinations may explain why the FCC on Sept. 29 — a week before she sent her letter — asked for more information from Standard General and Tegna, pushing the close of its merger investigation at least a few weeks beyond an initial Oct. 18 deadline. Indeed, it’s likely that the House’s Office of Legislative Affairs let the FCC Chairwoman know the letter was coming, according to one lawyer.
“You don’t want to surprise an agency head when they are in your own party,” the lawyer said.
It’s not unheard of for powerful politicos to put pressure on FCC commissioners on behalf of big donors, but “since she has no constituent who would be affected, it is unusual,” said Mark Lipp, a partner at law firm Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth who worked at the FCC for 14 years.
“I’ve seen some commissioners withstand that kind of pressure and seen others buckle,” Lipp said.
The loudest opponents of the Tegna deal, NewsGuild-CWA and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-CWA unions, have prodded the FCC for records about why Tegna rejected the Allen bid. The unions’ lawyer is David Goodfriend, who works as a lobbyist for Allen’s Weather Channel, according to the US House of Representative’s Clerk Site.
“That’s sounds like more than a coincidence,” according to Lipp.
The delays have thrown the Tegna deal into jeopardy, insiders say. Some speculate FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel will simply not bring the $24-a-share deal up for a vote before the four commissioners, exercising what would essentially be a pocket veto. She is under no legal obligation to bring the deal to a vote, sources said.
Investors believe there is a 60% chance the deal happens based on Tegna’s $20.62 closing price on Wednesday. Without a $24-a-share deal, analysts believe the Tegna shares would fall to about $16.50, a trader said.