Lawmakers call for hearing on FirstNet after IG report lists public disclosure concerns

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) received a final government report citing problems with financial disclosures and recommendations for improvement, but that's not the end of the matter if some lawmakers have their way.  

At least two lawmakers are calling for a hearing and a closer look at the organization that is tasked with building the nation's first wireless broadband public safety network. Their calls came after the Commerce Inspector General's (IG) report was released, citing problems around disclosures and contracts.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, said the report "raises a number of concerns with FirstNet" and he expects the committee will hold its first-ever hearing on FirstNet early next year. The hearing will examine the IG's findings, as well as other important issues related to the public safety network. "The events of September 11th were a reminder that our nation's first responders need an interoperable public safety network to keep Americans safe," he said in the statement.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who leads the House's top telecom subcommittee, also said questions of legitimacy and ethics threaten to undermine FirstNet's important mission. "We will continue our thoughtful oversight and hold additional hearings early next year and expect to see significant progress in implementing the Inspector General's recommendations," he said in a statement.

Others are ready for the debacle to be over.

While there had been whispers among industry vendors and public-safety representatives about alleged impropriety and backroom dealings, things came to a head in April 2013 when then-board member Paul Fitzgerald, who is the sheriff of Story County, Iowa, brought up concerns that FirstNet's plan at the time was being developed largely by consultants who were not engaged in a fair, transparent manner. He argued that these consultants came from the commercial wireless world, not the public-safety community, and they were paid amounts that were not disclosed to the board as a whole.

In a statement today on the Story County Sheriff's Office website, Fitzgerald said he's encouraged that the IG's report acknowledges the problems of the past and points FirstNet toward a more lawful and productive course. "I hope that the current Board members will push for the best network possible and question what they are unsure of, even if it means going against popular opinion," he said. The sheriff said he is still reviewing the report and may provide further comment after that. 

Since the initial allegations came to light, board Chairman Sam Ginn has been replaced by Sue Swenson, and the entire organization has been trying to start again on new footing. It's been conducting meetings with states, territories and tribal nations on how to build the network, and it's actively trying to get participation from firefighters, law enforcement officials, emergency medical providers and public safety officials from all levels of government.

Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, who authored the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2012 that created FirstNet, said the IG report "serves as a note of caution to everyone involved in FirstNet--they must be diligent about following the rules. FirstNet is a rare hybrid with a unique responsibility. It has to carefully balance the need for both effective government oversight and the autonomy necessary to launch a first of its kind nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders."

Like others affiliated with FirstNet, Rockefeller wants to see the investigation put behind and for the entity to move forward. "I continue to trust that FirstNet is in good hands, both with the Board and its executive leadership team, and I am confident that they will make sure to carefully abide by all applicable rules and regulations going forward," Rockefeller said in a statement. "In fact, I understand that FirstNet has already taken steps to remedy many of the problems documented by the Inspector General. It's now time to refocus on making FirstNet operational as soon as possible so that first responders nationwide can utilize it in their critical mission of saving lives."

For more:
- see Rep. Walden's statement
- see Sen. Rockefeller's statement
- see the IG report
- see this FirstNet post

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Article updated Dec. 9 to add comment from Sheriff Fitzgerald's office.