House science committee kicks off investigation of LightSquared

Panel sees political influence, wants records of all correspondence between company and White House.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee kicked off a probe of contacts between officials in the Obama administrational and startup cellular company LightSquared, and the "questionable timing" between those contacts and Democratic party fundraising events with President Obama.

In similar letters to the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, chairman Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, and the six other Republican members of the committee charged the administration with trying to muzzle and soften the testimony of technical experts, including Gen. William Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, on how the planned LightSquared network could interfere with GPS receivers.

The Federal Communications Commission gave LightSquared the go-ahead to develop its 40,000 cell tower network this January, pending completion of interference tests with the GPS industry and federal agencies this spring. Those tests revealed widespread interference at the higher portion of the company's spectrum. LightSquared submitted a new plan to FCC in June that will require another round of tests.

LightSquared, backed by billionaire Philip Falcone, chief executive officer of hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners, cited the company's Democratic Party fundraising support in its contacts with high-level administration officials, the lawmakers charged in their letters to OMB and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Referring to emails between LightSquared lobbyists and lawyers and senior administration officials, including Aneesh Chopra, then the White House chief technology officer, the committee inferred attempts at political influence. Those emails, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, referred to attendance by company officials at a September 2010 presidential fundraiser. "While some may call it a coincidence, we remain skeptical," about the timing of the contacts, the lawmakers wrote.

The letter noted that Falcone and his wife, Lisa, each contributed $30,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in September 2009, about a week after Philip Falcone had a meeting with James Kohlenberger, OSTP chief of staff.

The lawmakers questioned several instances where the White House reportedly pressured senior government officials to soften their congressional testimony in order to support the president's policy initiative to expand commercial broadband. "We were also troubled to note a softer tone toward the LightSquared project in the administration officials' written testimonies when compared to the technical assessments they submitted to NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration]," the letter said.

Referring to news reports, the letter also said Shelton told lawmakers in a classified briefing prior to a Sept. 15 House Armed Services Committee hearing that "the White House tried to pressure him to change his testimony to make it more favorable to a company tied to a large Democratic donor."

Shelton rejected that suggestion, and told the hearing committee panel that if the LightSquared system went into operation, this would require retrofitting more than 1 million military GPS receivers, a process that would cost billions of dollars and take a decade to accomplish.

Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing, told the Daily Beast on Tuesday that OMB provided him with guidance to change his testimony at last week's hearing to say that a new round of testing on LightSquared interference with GPS could be finished in 90 days. Russo said he rejected that suggestion, as he believed the new tests would take at least six months.

The committee asked OMB and OSTP to provide it with all records of contacts with Falcone, any employees of Harbinger Capital, LightSquared and any firms under contract to the two firms by Oct. 7.