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More Public TV Stations Scrutinized

Inquiry: Republican says L.A. and San Francisco channels gave donor lists to brokers, who may have shared them with Democrats or others.

July 17, 1999|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — More public television stations may have been sharing donor lists with political parties through list brokers, says a spokesman for a congressman who has called a hearing on the issue for next week.

"The problem appears to be more pervasive than we first thought," Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), said Friday.

Johnson said documents indicate that public television stations KQED in San Francisco and KCET in Los Angeles and public radio station WNYC in New York have provided their donor lists to brokers who, in turn, may have provided them to the Democratic Party or other political organizations. He would not release the documents.

Already, three other television stations--WGBH-TV in Boston, WNET in New York and WETA in Washington--are under scrutiny.

Tauzin, chairman of the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee, has scheduled a hearing on the matter Tuesday. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) has requested a separate hearing by Commerce's oversight subcommittee, which has investigatory authority.

Tauzin plans to ask for a study by the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigatory arm, into whether list-swapping occurred at other stations or involved individual candidates as well as parties.

"It's unethical, and if it's not already illegal, it soon will be," Johnson said. Republicans have also demanded a review of federal funding for public broadcasting. The Corp. for Public Broadcasting gets about $250 million a year from Congress.

The controversy centers on whether public broadcasting stations provided their donor lists to political parties in violation of federal tax law.

Sharing membership lists is a legitimate business practice done daily by countless organizations. However, the CPB, a private, nonprofit organization, is considered a charity for tax purposes. As such, it is barred from intervening directly or indirectly in political campaigns.

Providing a donor list to a political party or candidate wouldn't necessarily constitute an improper intervention, as long as all political parties or candidates were given equal access to the list.

At KCET in Los Angeles, Laurel Lambert, director of advertising and promotions, said station policy forbids selling, renting or otherwise providing membership lists to political parties or candidates. But the reverse--the station's buying names from both the Democratic and Republican parties--has occurred.

Lambert said brokers are directed to contact the station for approval of any requests for lists. An ongoing search of station records so far has uncovered no violations dating back to 1996, she said.

At WGBH, where names have been swapped with the Democratic National Committee, officials said they instituted a policy against trading names with political organizations in 1994 but continued after that because of a "debt" incurred by a 1993 list acquisition.

Subsequent swapping occurred because of error, they said.

On Thursday, WNET said it had started an internal investigation after learning that a list broker working for the station had swapped names with the Democratic and Republican parties.

A WETA spokeswoman said the station traded donor lists with the DNC and "conservative and liberal" political organizations.

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