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The Embezzlement-Accusation Ploy Rears Its Ugly Head at WBAI
Lyn Gerry | March 7, 2001

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 honesty.

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 station."

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 at Pacifica.

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 management.

My prediction: we will see the pattern repeated at WBAI.

Counter Strategy

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
FROM: Paid and Unpaid Staff of KPFK
DATE: 1/19/95

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 weekly basis.

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.