The Embezzlement-Accusation Ploy Rears
Its Ugly Head at WBAI
Lyn Gerry | March
The Christmas Coup at WBAI is often compared to the 1999 KPFA
lockout, but it actually shares many more features, in terms of its
tactics and execution, to the coup of January 4,1995 at KPFK in Los
Angeles. Like at WBAI, the management was removed with the collusion
of some staff at the station, who received promotions in its wake.
Like at WBAI, back-channel communications with the Pacifica
Executive Director had been going on for months before Pacifica
struck the blow. Like at WBAI, gag rules were imposed and selective
firings and bannings of staff and volunteers were carried out. While
the move to neutralize each station by Pacifica National always has
unique features, the similarities between WBAI and KPFK warrant a
closer comparison than they have, thus far, received.
Recently, as a result of an on-air comment by a listener-caller
in the wake of the removal of Building Bridges, it came to light
that another tactic used at KPFK is now being employed at WBAI: the
use of rumors of embezzlement by the removed staffers to serve as an
explanation for the lack of believable reasons, or any reasons,
provided by Pacifica management for the summary firings of
long-time, dedicated staff.
After abruptly terminating the broadcast of Building Bridges
toward the beginning of the hour, interim manager Utrice Leid took
calls from listeners on-air. One caller, who said he had volunteered
to answer phones during the recently-concluded fund drive at WBAI,
reported that he had been told by staffer Paul Williams, a strong
supporter of Leid, that "two computers" had been confiscated as part
of a legal proceeding involving allegations of embezzlement.
According to the caller, Williams conveyed to him that this was
the reason that the firings could not be discussed. Leid denied
knowledge of the supposed confiscation of the computers but alluded,
on air, to compelling reasons that would be made public at some
unspecified future date, determined by Leid. Sources at WBAI say
that Bernard White is one of the targets of these rumors.
The KPFK Scenario
On January 4, 1995, Pacifica Executive Director Pat Scott arrived
at KPFK and "demanded the resignation" of Manager Cliff Roberts,
Program Director Lucia Chappelle, and "eliminated " the position of
Assistant Station Manager, Mary Fowler, who had been keeping the
books and preparing the budgets at KPFK for 10 years.
Mary had been promoted to management less than a year earlier,
though her duties had changed very little since her promotion. Until
Pat Scott took over as Executive Director of Pacifica in late 1994,
and began issuing "mandates" for various hires of personnel, KPFK
had not had a budget deficit. This was due to Mary's diligence and
Mary was given a 30-day notice, and Pat Scott told the L.A. Times
that she would probably be kept on in another capacity. No such
offer was ever made to Mary by Scott and this appears to have been a
ploy to divert attention, as the reason given publicly by Scott for
the management change revolved around programming issues, an area
that Mary had no involvement in.
Several hours after the removal of the managers, Scott told the
L.A. Times that,
"The Pacifica Foundation is looking at changes in top management
to really focus on programming that is more relevant to the African
American, Latino and Asian American communities," "We want to
provide this programming in a more structured manner, and not just
with news and public affairs, but with cultural programming too. In
order to do this, we really have to change the management of the
Both Roberts and Chappelle were African Americans. Both were
decent people with many years devoted to Pacifica in various
capacities. There was by no means unanimity regarding their
performances in their jobs; they were neither adored nor vilified,
but they were known to be complying unenthusiastically to mandates
handed down by Scott. (Ever since Scott's proclamation, the number
of programs geared to communities of color, or produced by persons
of color, has decreased at KPFK).
Assistant Station Manager Mary Fowler, on the other hand, was
universally admired by the staff in much the same way that KPFA's
Nicole Sawaya has been spoken of. She was considered fair even by
people who despised one another at the station. She routinely worked
long hours and often 7-day weeks. She did everything from write the
budgets to unplug toilets, plan fundraisers to administer first aid
to injured homeless people in the neighborhood.
Never at any time had Mary been reprimanded in her job
performance. Her recent promotion, which had been approved by the
former Executive Director, was presented to her as an
acknowledgement of her service, as it was accompanied by a raise in
pay. KPFK staff sent a letter to Pacifica demanded that her firing
be rescinded (posted below).
However, Pacifica refused to rescind her removal, and never
provided any reason why either Mary, or the position of bookkeeper,
were eliminated. Several people who spoke about the firings on the
air were removed. The station was too disunified, and shocked, to
make the kind of concerted response that has since been mounted at
other stations. Mary, true to form, actually spent her last 30 days
closing out the books and organizing her various projects for a
smooth transition (hardly something she would have been permitted to
do if she had in fact been either incompetent or dishonest).
Installed as Acting Manager in the coup was Pacifica Archive
Director Pamela Burton, who had applied as manager years earlier but
had not gotten the job because of objections from staff. Replacing
Lucia Chappelle, as Acting Program Director, was Public Affairs
Director Gwen Walters, who had been sending faxes to Pat Scott for
months detailing the failings of Lucia and suggesting herself as a
replacement. The books of KPFK were given over directly to Sandra
Rosas, the Pacifica controller. (Rosas' employment in that position
ended recently, coinciding with the removal of the Pacifica Finance
Office to Washington, DC. The facts of Rosas' termination have yet
to be clarified.)
Within a week of the KPFK coup, several programs were summarily
removed from the air, in violation of existing written procedures.
Within several weeks, a massive reorganization of the entire program
schedule took place. Marc Cooper and "Radio Nation" were brought in
at this time. Chappelle had previously rejected his application for
a program, due to hostilities that had surrounded his past tenure at
KPFK as News Director ten years earlier (before my time). Marc
Cooper has been a vocal defender of the new regime, both at KPFK and
Most staff at the station were disconnected from administrative
matters and from each other. Many came in once a week to do their
shows and had little contact or knowledge about the workings of the
organization at any level. Even those of us on the staff who were
around the station on a daily basis had little knowledge about the
Pacifica National Board and Management. There was certainly no
general view, as there now is, of that group as a malevolent force.
Therefore, the atmosphere was ripe for the spreading of rumors such
as embezzlement that would explain such inexplicable firings.
At the time of the coup, the union had been in contract
negotiations. It is extremely important to understand that KPFK's
management and union had a cordial relationship prior to the Scott
regime. Mary, who was one of the management negotiators, had been
Union steward for 7 or 8 years. While Mary and GM Cliff Roberts, the
other management negotiator, were amenable to proposals put on the
table by the union, Pat Scott had been rejecting all our demands.
We in the union were extremely surprised by Scott's rejections,
as was the KPFK management. We had not gotten to the money part,
which is where we all expected the fight would be. Scott was
rejecting no-brainers, provisions dealing with employee privacy,
seniority and participation in decision-making processes.
Negotiations were suspended when the managers were removed.
A short while after the coup, the new management announced that
due to a budget deficit, one third of the staff would have to be
laid off. They refused to produce the financial records the union
demanded, to which we were entitled by contract, to have evidence of
the deficit amount and to submit a counter-proposal that would save
jobs. (The union filed an unfair labor practice charge based on this
refusal, and Pacifica's first union-busting law firm, the American
Consulting Group (ACG), was hired to defend Pacifica.)
During this period, the Acting Manager Pamela Burton also
maintained her role as Director of the Pacifica Archives, which was
located in the same building as KPFK. It was Burton who began
spreading rumors via Archives staff meetings, that the reason for
the dismissal of Mary and Cliff was that they had embezzled money
which had resulted in the present deficit.
I learned this from Carole Selmon, who was on the staff of the
Archive, and an unpaid programmer on KPFK. Carole had stormed out
angrily from the Archive staff meeting when Burton made these
accusations, demanding to be notified when business actually related
to the archive was going to be discussed.
Carole Selmon was later fired by Burton after she condemned the
treatment of African-American programmers at KPFK during a
public-comment period before the Pacifica Board. Carole, an African
American, later filed charges with the EEOC.) Carole informed me
immediately about the rumors spread by Pam Burton and I notified
Mary (who was my housemate). Mary demanded a public retraction of
these allegations from Sandra Rosas, the controller, who now had
custody of the KPFK books. Rosas complied, and denied that she had
made any such allegations.
The Function of Such Allegations
Defamatory rumors such as these were spread by a person with a
certain level of authority, but can be officially disavowed by those
higher up, in the cases of both stations. If spread properly, even
the official denials can be used to re-enforce belief in the rumor
by those who are being targeted by the disinformation. In these
cases, the targets are station personnel who are not informed or
wavering in their support (a way to maintain internal control), and
supporters in the community seeking a plausible explanation for
actions that seem to be in stark contrast to the public image of the
station (a way to maintain external control).
From both the letter sent by the KPFK staff, and the responses
seen at KPFA and WBAI to unjust firings, one can see that if the
staff believes management is unfair, this will undermine the
loyalty--and the compliance--of staff.
The incoming management can not state the real reason for the
removals, political differences or personal dislikes, as neither are
considered valid reasons for firing a person, especially in a
so-called progressive environment. Without the compliance of the
majority of the staff, the management can't succeed, and therefore
it must not be perceived as capricious and vindictive. Therefore,
the usefulness of rumors, innuendo and character assassination.
Rumor also provides a cover for authoritarian behavior much as
the excuse of "law enforcement" is used in the society at large for
curtailment of liberty and openness. In this capacity, rumor also
plays to the station's donor community, which would otherwise be
alienated. "Things are not what they seem" is a technique of
manipulation used by authoritarian systems which are attempting to
mask their designs. Obviously, this is of the utmost interest to an
organization such as KPFK or WBAI, attempting to enforce a clampdown
while soliciting funds under the rubric of free speech and an
opposition to tyranny.
Neither Burton nor Walters were allowed to remain in the
positions of authority at the station that they sought. When
permanent hires were made, both were rejected by Pacifica. After
becoming lightening rods for the hostility generated by their
diligence in carrying out Pacifica's mandates, both were removed
from their interim positions and returned to their previous posts.
Burton eventually had her job as Archive Director "eliminated."
Walters left soon after being passed over for the permanent PD
position, as she could not comfortably function as the Public
Affairs Director, a union position, subsequent to her performance in
My prediction: we will see the pattern repeated at WBAI.
Proving a negative is next to impossible, which is why these
rumor strategies are so effective in smearing the reputation of
their subjects. Its also important to understand that some people
have a stake in believing such rumors, if it provides an excuse for
not taking a stand on principle that could be personally costly in
terms of livelihood or access to the airwaves, while allowing them
to still feel good about themselves.
The person being defamed must demand a signed statement from
Pacifica, explicitly stating that there is no truth to allegations
of embezzlement. The person being defamed must be prepared to take
legal action to obtain this retraction.
TO: Pacifica Executive Board and Executive Director
Paid and Unpaid Staff of KPFK
We, the undersigned, urgently request that Pacifica's Executive
Board and Executive Director immediately rescind the termination of
KPFK's Assistant General Manager, Mary Fowler. We are extremely
concerned by her unjust termination, and question whether Pacifica
is living up to its commitment to justice as put forth in its
Mission Statement. With Ms. Fowler's termination, Pacifica serves
notice to all its employees and volunteers that loyalty, dedication,
and>hardwork are of little value to the organization.
Mary Fowler has selflessly given the last 10 years of her life to
ensuring that KPFK remain one of the two financially healthy
stations in this mostly unhealthy radio network. Pacifica has only
Mary Fowler to thank for the financial security achieved through
seven different management regimes during the last decade. Mary has
literally worked seven days a week to ensure that the
bookkeeping,administration, and Foundation mandates are met on a
The fact that Pacifica has not been able to find a General
Manager who can work in a sometimes difficult and conflictive
environment should not be held against an employee who has survived
through dedication and struggle, and at times has led this station
when General Managers have failed to offer direction. To claim that
she is being dismissed due to a "management restructuring" is
extremely offensive and makes Pacifica no different than other
corporate environments where employees' lives and well-being are
measured only in terms of "efficiency" and profit margins.
We urgently request that the Executive Board of Pacifica, whom
its Executive Director claims is responsible for this highly
questionable decision, explain how a body with no day-to-day contact
with this station can dismiss an employee who has never been
reprimanded or disciplined and who has served Pacifica with
integrity and sincerity for a decade. We must all wonder what our
worth as employees is to an allegedly progressive organization that
seems to view us only as expendable resources.
We demand a response and immediate action within ten days, or an
era of cold and tense relations between this station and Pacifica is
on the horizon. We are open to dialogue, but not to the dismissal of
Mary Fowler. Please do not leave this problem unresolved. It could
spell disaster for yet another Pacifica station.
Signed by the paid staff and 40 unpaid staff and volunteers.