Recent case suggests it is okay to keep lying to the FCC, until they write back and ask you not to.

Pop quiz: Raise your hand if you think you can get away with a deliberate flat-out lie to the U.S. Government – even after they catch you at it. Joshing with the post office clerk doesn’t count. We mean responding to an official letter of inquiry with an intentional falsehood about a material fact.

We don’t see your hand raised. Surprise – chances are, the worst the FCC will do is send you a letter asking you to please not do it again.

We reported back in April about the unwisely-named “Phonejammer” company, fined $25,000 by the FCC for selling, as you might expect, cell phone jammers, which are illegal in the United States. (In a humorous digression, the April piece stated that Texas and Florida allow open carry of firearms. Thanks to the many, many readers who sent us emails, we understand now that was incorrect. Please stop writing us about this.)

As we noted, Phonejammer denied to the FCC that it had marketed in the United States. The denial came in two letters, responding to questions from the FCC. The company bluntly said it “does not market to the United States, and has not shipped or distributed units to the United States.” The FCC read this while holding a jammer in each hand, both purchased in the U.S., with a Phonejammer invoice for one and a Phonejammer credit card receipt for the other. The FCC also had open the Phonejammer web site, which gave every sign of selling and shipping to U.S. residents.

Both FCC inquiries to Phonejammer included a requirement that answers be supported by affidavit, so that untruths could be prosecuted for perjury. The company’s responses left out the affidavit both times.

The FCC could have rejected the company’s response for lack of the affidavit. Or it could have invoked a federal statute, 18 U.S.C. §1001, that makes it a felony to “knowingly and willfully” lie to the FCC – no affidavit needed. The law is typically used to prosecute someone who falsely denies facts that would constitute a violation, as Phonejammer seems to have done. (Martha Stewart knows all about this.)

But the FCC did neither of these things. Instead, in the course of fining Phonejammer, it emitted a stern footnote announcing plans to warn the company that it might be subject to fines if it lies again in the future. 

Plans to issue a warning to tell the truth? Have expectations really sunk that low?

Apparently, yes. The FCC has now released an “official citation” to Phonejammer reviewing the evidence against it, and warning that further lies from the company could result in fines.

So far, then, the company has been sanctioned for proven violations, but has gotten off scot-free on what appear to be blatant misrepresentations.   We understand why the FCC thinks a warning is necessary, as a legal matter. But we would like to see the rules fixed rules so a proven lie leads to trouble the first time out.

Either that, or a similar deal at the IRS. Just once, we want to make up a whoppingly huge, obviously invalid, tax deduction and get away with it.