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DOJ Should Probe 'Scourge of Fake Comments' in Regulatory Matters, Lawmakers Argue

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai arrives for an FCC meeting where they will vote on net neutrality Dec. 14, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — House Dem leaders argue that fake public comments may be stacking regulatory changes in the administration’s favor, and they want the Justice Department and FBI to investigate.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) told Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray in a letter this week that they believe the problem is “widespread” and growing in intensity.

In June, Pallone asked the FBI and DOJ to investigate whether fake comments using stolen identities were submitted to the Federal Communications Commission. In December, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declared that as many as 2 million of the public comments submitted as the FCC was weighing net neutrality stole the identities of other Americans. Thousands of people filed complaints with Schneiderman’s office over the fake comments.

The attorney general posted some of the complaints from people who said they did not make the comments attributed to them, that the comment was attributed to a minor child, that the comment was attributed to a deceased relative, etc.

“Since June, it has come to our attention that other regulatory agencies are also facing a scourge of fake comments that may similarly violate the law,” the House Dems wrote to Sessions and Wray on Wednesday. “The fraud perpetrated in the FCC’s rulemaking appears to directly violate federal law. As more details have come to light, the scope of that fraud becomes more alarming. The FCC’s proceeding to roll back consumers’ net neutrality protections was irreparably tainted by millions of fake comments using email addresses of real people who had nothing to do with those comments.”

The lawmakers asserted that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Labor Department have all been hit by a wave of fake public comments.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of a controversial Obama-era fiduciary rule at the Labor Department found 40 percent of those listed as public commenters and contacted by the newspaper telling the WSJ that they never made those comments. Reporter James Grimaldi told NPR that “most of these were negative comments against the rule… kind of get-out-of-my-backyard, grumpy old men comments, frankly.”

“Our investigation found as many as 8,000 people who said this is not my comment put online. I think maybe they may see that it’s a bigger problem than they ever thought it was,” Grimaldi said. “…It may be weaponizing of Astroturf lobbying. It’s creating bots to do it.”

“The practice of manipulating agency actions by flooding rulemaking dockets with fake comments is far more widespread than it appeared when you were initially asked to investigate. Some Americans’ voices are being co-opted in what appears to be a systemic attempt to corrupt federal policy-making,” the House Dems wrote to Sessions and Wray. “Immediate action is needed in order to restore public trust in the federal rulemaking process. We urge you to use the full investigative powers of the FBI and DOJ to promptly uncover who is behind this conduct and prosecute the parties under applicable federal law.”