Feds arrest Arizona man for stealing Native group’s PTFP money
An Arizona man with a background in Native radio faces federal civil and criminal charges for using a federal grant for personal expenses rather than its intended purpose — starting a radio station for two Navajo organizations.
An indictment filed March 27 in the District of Arizona U.S. District Court alleges that John Bittner of Flagstaff misrepresented himself as a certified engineer to New Mexico-based Navajo groups. He obtained a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grant based on a building plan that he is alleged to have lied about.
[Update: Bittner pleaded not guilty of embezzlement charges April 26 in District Court.]
After the Navajo groups received a PTFP grant at Bittner’s urging, the purported engineer used the $322,364 for child support payments, medical and legal expenses, travel and other personal spending, according to the indictment and a court suit.
An FCC FM construction permit awarded to Diné Agriculture Inc., a Navajo nonprofit in Shiprock, N.M., expired in January, dashing plans for the station Bittner had promised to build. Meanwhile, the criminal case against Bittner has stalled, as the suspect has yet to be formally charged on counts of theft and fraud.
After Bittner failed to show up for an arraignment scheduled for April 11, a warrant was issued for his arrest. The next day, Flagstaff police found him in a wooded area near a condominium building, covered in blood. A neighbor had reported seeing a man “walking around with two deep gashes on his neck,” according to an Arizona Daily Sun article. (Current could not obtain the police report by deadline last week.)
The paper reported that police found a suicide note and a pair of bloody scissors in Bittner’s condo, and a rope hung from a balcony. Bittner was released from a Flagstaff hospital last week.
Bittner has been connected to two other Navajo organizations whose radio stations ran into trouble. Several sources say Bittner was at one time working with Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, N.M. Like Diné, NTC received an FM construction permit from a 2007 FCC filing window. According to FCC documents, the organization received misleading information from an engineer and also lost its construction permit.
Bittner’s name also appears on documents related to KGHR in Tuba City, Ariz., a station operated by a Navajo high school.
[The Tuba City station is not off the air, as Current reported in the print edition of this article. Jim Anderson, interim station manager said KGHR left the air because of a lightning strike in November 2010. Contrary to the FCC's record, Anderson said, the station has been back on-air since September 2011.]
The engineer who wasn’t
According to the federal indictment and civil complaint filed against Bittner, Diné applied for an FM station in collaboration with Alfreda Beartrack, an Indian Health Services representative in Shiprock who met Bittner through a colleague. (Reached by phone, Beartrack declined to comment for this article. A Diné representative also declined to comment via email.)
To burnish his credentials, Bittner told the prospective applicant that his father had written FCC guidelines. In fact, his father, also named John Bittner, was a respected journalism professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and an author of college textbooks about mass communications. The Radio and Television Digital News Association of the Carolinas gives out annual scholarships bearing the elder Bittner’s name.
Bittner also told the applicants that he was a certified member of the Society of Broadcast Engineers. That turned out to be untrue — a special agent with the U.S. Department of Commerce found that Bittner’s SBE membership had lapsed in 2004.
At Bittner’s urging, Diné and Beartrack applied for a grant from the now-defunct PTFP in August 2009 to finance station construction and received approval. Bittner prepared the application, which bore the signature of Gilbert Yazzie, treasurer for Diné. Yazzie later told investigators that the signature was not his.
Bittner went on to represent himself as the head of the organization, which Diné’s president said he never gave Bittner the authority to do. The power grab enabled the ersatz engineer to deposit the federal funds into a bank account he controlled.
In July 2010, Bittner asked the Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission for permission to build a broadcast tower for the new station on Roof Butte, a flat-topped peak in Arizona’s Chuska Mountains. He told the NNTRC that the owner of a tower already on the site, commercial TV station KOB in Albuquerque, N.M., had agreed to give Diné the site and would relocate its equipment on a new tower to be built by Diné.
The NNTRC gave Bittner a letter of support, which he used to support the PTFP application.
Several months later, in October 2010, Bittner began urging the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which then handled disbursement of PTFP funds, to release the funding that had been approved. According to the indictment, he claimed that the work site could be snowed in and that $1 million of work could be lost if the money wasn’t released. His pleas succeeded, and Bittner transferred the funds into his bank account.
A month earlier, in September 2010, Bittner had failed to return a rental car, and it was reported stolen. He was arrested on stolen vehicle charges, but the rental-car company did not pursue a case against him after he paid charges on the car.
Building plans unravel
The holes in Bittner’s stories first came to light when NIST notified Diné that it had fallen out of compliance with the terms of its PTFP grant. According to NIST, Diné failed to submit necessary financial reports and an attorney’s letter demonstrating its right to use the proposed Roof Butte site for the station’s broadcast tower.
At the time, Diné officials weren’t even aware that Bittner had already taken the PTFP funds.
After receiving the letter from NIST, Yazzie of Diné told the Navajo regulatory commission that no one at Diné had ever met Bittner and that they were no longer able to contact him.
The commission also contacted KOB about Bittner’s plan to use the commercial station’s Roof Butte tower site. Wayne Koontz, KOB’s RF systems supervisor, told the commission that he was not aware of the plan and would not have allowed it. Koontz told Current that Bittner might have worked out the plan with Koontz’s former supervisor at the station, but that if he did, the supervisor did not tell anyone else at the station about it before moving on to a new job.
“No one else seemed to know about it,” Koontz said. “I definitely didn’t, and if I’d been brought into it, I would have objected right off the bat.” Sean Anker, Koontz’s former supervisor, told Current that he could not comment on the matter.
In March 2011, Bittner told Beartrack of the IHS that he was working on the project and had turned down other jobs to do so, but he in fact had not bought any equipment.
The civil and criminal suits point out that the IHS also made some missteps. Beartrack didn’t have the authority to enter the health service into the contract with Bittner or to sign on behalf of Diné on the grant application. In addition, the PTFP grant was awarded as a match to nonfederal funds, but the funds claimed as nonfederal were in fact from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant.
Meanwhile, neither Diné nor the IHS ever realized the fruits of the PTFP support. Instead, the indictment said, Bittner spent it at a car dealership and on dining, travel expenses, child support payments and more. Investigators were unable to account for some of the missing funds.
The construction permit for KFDC, the proposed station in Shiprock, expired January 12.
Troubles spread to other groups
Bittner appears to have been involved with at least three other Native organizations, though the charges against him focus only on his relationship with Diné. Several sources confirm that Bittner was involved with Navajo Technical College, the New Mexico technical school that got a construction permit from a 2007 FCC filing.
According to FCC documents, NTC missed the commission’s construction deadline for its new station, a failure it blamed on an engineer who “proved unreliable and unable to move the project forward.” The school asked the FCC for more time to get the station on the air, but in February the commission rejected its request.
Although the FCC documents don’t identify the errant engineer, a source who tried to help NTC regain good standing with the FCC said Bittner had been working on the project. Engineer Greg Best joined the effort to revive the station project after NTC cut ties with Bittner. An NTC official told him of Bittner’s earlier involvement.
Best wasn’t able to save NTC’s construction permit, and it expired last August. (NTC representatives did not return calls seeking comment.)
Communications attorney Ernest Sanchez recalls meeting Bittner in July 2007 at an FCC conference in Albuquerque for potential Native applicants for FM licenses. “He seemed well-known in the Native American community,” Sanchez says. Bittner told Sanchez that he would be working with NTC on their application.
Although engineers and attorneys found themselves swamped with business from potential applicants, Bittner “was tremendously optimistic that he was going to be able to help many, many groups submit applications in a timely way,” Sanchez says. “I took it as just that maybe he knew what he was doing, but he was kind of naïve and inexperienced.”
The civil complaint against Bittner indicates that an Apache tribe had written him a check for $1,197.30, but it does not specify what the payment was for. Representatives of the tribe did not return calls seeking comment.
Finally, Bittner is named on FCC documents as a representative of KGHR, the station in Tuba City, Ariz., mentioned above.
Representatives of the Greyhills Academy, which operates the station, said last week that the station is still off the air and confirmed that Bittner was a former employee. The position of general manager is listed as “vacant” on the school’s website.
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