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Funding scheme leads to exit
Florida station head quits over auction venture

Originally published in Current, Oct. 8, 1990
By Stephen Singer

A state investigation of a for-profit corporation that raised money for WJCT-TV/FM in Jacksonville, Fla., and payment of $166,000 in commissions to the stations' president have forced his resignation.
In addition, the Jacksonville City Council and county school district have temporarily withheld more than $300,000 in funding while the investigation is pending.

Fred J. Rebman ended his 28-year tenure at WJCT in late August. His resignation came shortly after local newspapers reported that Rebman received 5 percent in commissions from a furniture auction that raised money for the station and five other outlets in Florida and Georgia. Rebman was president of Florida Television Charity Inc., the for-profit company that ran the auction.

Rebman, 56, received commissions totaling $166,000 in 18 months, according to station spokesman Vic DiGenti. Rebman, who denies receiving $166,000 in commissions, also had a salary at WJCT of $130,000.

``I have serious questions why he set up the corporation,'' said city Councilman Harry Reagan, an ex-commercial broadcaster who has been a sharp critic of Rebman.

Reagan said he has introduced council resolutions to ``take steps to restore [WJCT's] public credibility,'' calling for full disclosure of fundraising campaigns. ``No one in the public or city government knew what was going on. There was no disclosure of a corporation like that, or a disclosure that 5 percent was going to the general manager,'' he said.

Robert Shircliff, treasurer of the station's board of directors and a member of the board of Florida Television Charity, said he could not say ``whether or not every member of the city council'' was aware of the for-profit firm.

The board of directors of the for-profit corporation comprised members of the executive committee of WJCT's board of directors. In addition to Shircliff, members were Wilford Lyon Jr., Ira Koger, William Birchfield and E. Bruce Bower.

``People here are not as sophisticated as people in New York or Chicago,'' Rebman said. In a press conference called to announce that the for-profit operation was established, ``we tried really hard explaining the Nixon and Reagan years when arts groups had to get off the federal dole. We attempted to educate the public. This is nothing new,'' he said.

According to an audit of WJCT financial records, which is conducted at the end of each fiscal year, ``everything is in order, everything is accounted for,'' DiGenti said.

Rebman said his commissions — 2.5 percent of auction revenue paid by the for-profit subsidiary and 2.5 percent from the furniture company that provided the auction goods — was far less than $166,000. ``It was closer to $82,000 in 15 months. Annualizing that, it would be about $60,000 or $66,000. For a $4 million-to-$5 million gross business, that's really tiny.''

Rebman said he established the for-profit venture to comply with Internal Revenue Service regulations requiring separation from the non-profit stations. ``You must operate as if the two are absolutely, totally apart,'' he said.

The ex-station chief said Assistant State Attorney E. McRae Mathis has ``nothing to investigate.'' He ``felt there was enough smoke to take a look. Auctions have been done by public TV stations around the country,'' he added.

Mathis said he will ``probably not have anything meaningful to say'' until he is further into the probe. ``I'm not prepared to discuss what the scope of the investigation is,'' he said.

``We're getting information from a number of parties,'' he said without elaborating. ``Information came to our office's attention through the same information provided to the media. The same people they were talking to contacted us.''

Rebman said Pioneer Antiques, which worked with WJCT in purchasing furniture that would be auctioned, ``went to the press.'' Furniture company owner Alley Watts is suing WJCT for $40,000 he claims the station owes him, DiGenti said. WJCT is counter-suing the firm for $36,000 for failing to provide furniture the station insists should have been returned, he added.

Alley Watts, head of the antiques firm, could not be reached for comment.

The Jacksonville City Council has deferred payment of $98,000 to the station until city officials get results from the state attorney's investigation, Reagan said. WJCT airs taped broadcasts of council meetings at 10 p.m., though city officials preferred live broadcasts at 7:30 p.m., he said.

WJCT officials said live coverage would cost underwriting and subscriber funding, Reagan added. ``The city council was unhappy about it, but there was not much we could do about it,'' he said.
``This, coming on top of a plea [for money] last year was very disturbing to some council members,'' Reagan said. WJCT officials told council members of the meeting broadcasts after the city budget was approved, he said. ``There was some feeling that that was no coincidence. That kind of manipulation upset some council members,'' he said.

Duval County Public Schools also has delayed final action on a contract that would pay WJCT $225,000 — and a planned 7 percent increase, to $240,000 — for instructional TV services ``until more questions are answered,'' ITV Supervisor Michael Ard said.

As with the city, WJCT changed last year from live broadcasts of school board meetings to delayed taped airings, Ard said. ``Some of the board members and city council people took issue with it,'' he said.
``Every year the WJCT contract has been something the board has questioned or had concerns about,'' Ard said. ``While it's unfortunate this incident brought things to a head, it served as a catalyst for the board to see what other alternatives to WJCT exist,'' Ard added.
School board members are ``aware of technology offerings, and questioned if this is the most efficient way to spend our money. It's a lot of money,'' Ard said.

School officials will make a decision soon about whether to continue services with WJCT, establish an instructional television fixed service, share equipment with community colleges equipment or find another arrangement, Ard said.

The for-profit firm raised more than $800,000 in the 18 months it has been in operation, DiGenti said. Each of the TV stations that participated in the auctions — which include WJCT, WLRN in Miami, WMFE in Orlando, Fla., WEMU in Tampa, Fla., WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla., and WPBA in Atlanta — received 25 percent of gross profits, he said.

That amounted to $260,000 in two or three auctions. Money from Florida Public TV Charities also was used for personnel, overhead and purchase of products, DiGenti said.

The for-profit corporation still operates, but officials are "contemplating changing it to a nonprofit, if they have not already done it,'' he added.

Current's home page
Later story: Another public TV auction practice lands Allentown's WLVT in trouble, 1993.
Outside link: Online video report about the case on local station WXJT, 1990.

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