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Obama to nominate venture capitalist Thomas Wheeler to head FCC

Wheeler, a major campaign fundraiser with long ties to the media and the telecom industries, is managing director of Core Capital Partners.

May 01, 2013|By Jim Puzzanghera and Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday will nominate venture capitalist Thomas Wheeler as the nation's top telecommunications regulator, tapping a major campaign fundraiser with long ties to the media and the telecom industries, White House and industry officials said.

Wheeler, managing director of Core Capital Partners in Washington, D.C., would replace Julius Genachowski as chairman of the five-member Federal Communications Commission board.

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who was mentioned as a candidate, will take over as acting chairman when Genachowski steps down in the coming weeks. She will be the first woman to head the agency, if only for a few months until the Senate confirms Wheeler.

"Tom Wheeler is an experienced leader in the communications technology field who shares the president's commitment to protecting consumers, promoting innovation, enhancing competition and encouraging investment," said a White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and declined to be named.

Wheeler has been a player in telecom policy for more than three decades. He did not respond to an email request for comment Tuesday.

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From 1979 to 1984, Wheeler headed the National Cable Television Assn., since renamed the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. After eight years helping to create technology companies, Wheeler took over as head of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn. in 1992, leaving in 2005 to join Core Capital Partners.

Wheeler has been a longtime Obama supporter, raising $200,000 to $500,000 for the 2008 campaign and more than $500,000 for the 2012 campaign, according to Obama campaign disclosures.

Wheeler led a working group that reviewed science, technology, space and arts agencies during the early 2009 transition to the Obama administration. Obama appointed him to the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, and Wheeler has held other government advisory positions.

Wheeler's close ties to the industries he would regulate as FCC chair raises concerns, said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a media watchdog.

"The Federal Communications Commission needs a strong leader, someone who will use this powerful position to stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest," Aaron said.

"On paper, Tom Wheeler does not appear to be that person, having headed not one but two major trade associations," he said.

And Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, said it would be "hard to know whether Mr. Wheeler will be truly focused on serving the interests of the American people," considering that he was the top lobbyist for two industries regulated by the FCC.

If Wheeler doesn't "firmly commit" to serving the public interest, "including the clear, consistent and vigorous enforcement of federal broadcast decency law," Winter said, the council will oppose his confirmation.

But Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group, said she has known Wheeler for years and believes that "he will be an independent, proactive chairman."

She and other public interest advocates criticized Genachowski for not having a more focused agenda during his four-year tenure and for failing to push for more protections for consumers against large telecommunications companies.

Sohn noted that Wheeler headed the cable TV industry when it was an upstart and headed the wireless industry when there was much more competition. She said his work for those groups doesn't show that he would favor large companies.

"If he walked off the board of AT&T or Comcast or a big broadcaster today, it would be a different story," she said. "I don't think he's going to be beholden to anybody."

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

joe.flint@latimes.com

Times staff writers Christi Parsons and Matea Gold in Washington contributed to this report.

Flint reported from Los Angeles and Puzzanghera from Washington.

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