Is that public comment fake? GAO is looking to find out

(Tajha Chappellet-Lanier)

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The Government Accountability Office has accepted a call from the House Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate the prevalence of fraud and stolen identities in public comments to proposed federal regulations.

The government watchdog expects to start its work on the matter in five months, according to a letter from the GAO that the committee tweeted Tuesday.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., one of the 10 Democratic committee members who requested the work, praised GAO’s decision. “I’m glad the @ has accepted my call to review alleged fraudulent submissions in the federal rulemaking process,” he tweeted.

The issue of fake public comments came to the fore late last year during the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules. A Pew Research Center survey on the comments submitted to the FCC found that 57 percent used temporary or duplicate email addresses. “As a result, it is often difficult to determine if any given comment came from a specific citizen or from an unknown person (or entity) submitting multiple comments using unverified names and email addresses,” the report states.

In December the Wall Street Journal published an investigation in which “nearly 7,800” individuals told reporters the comments posted in their name were fakes. These included comments on net neutrality but also on other regulations being considered by separate agencies, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Labor.

On Wednesday, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee also wrote to the FBI and Department of Justice to request an expansion of their original request, from June, that the agencies investigate fake comments at the FCC.

“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 letter reads. “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.”

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Department of Justice (DOJ), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Federal Communications Commission, Government Accountability Office (GAO), House Energy and Commerce Committee
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