FCC Piles $65,000 in Fines on Small AM Station in Less Than a Year
The FCC recently issued two separate Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NALs), found here and here, for a combined sum of $40,000 against the licensee of a Class D AM radio station for failing to make available a complete public inspection file, and submitting what the FCC concluded was incorrect factual information concerning the station’s public inspection file. According to the FCC, the station submitted the incorrect information without having a reasonable basis for believing that the information it provided to the Commission was accurate. What is most significant about this case is that this latest in fines is in addition to a $25,000 fine the FCC issued less than a year ago and included the same violation, bringing the licensee’s collective contribution to the U.S. Treasury to $65,000 in the last 12 months.
By way of background, during a routine FCC inspection of an AM radio station in Texas back in December 2010, agents from the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau’s Houston Office found that the station failed to maintain a main studio with a meaningful full-time management and staff presence, determined that the station’s public inspection file was missing a current copy of the station’s authorization, its service contour map, the station’s most recent ownership report filing, the Public and Broadcasting manual, and all issues-programs lists, and refused to make the public inspection file available. As a result, in June of last year, the Bureau issued an NAL in the amount of $25,000 for violating the FCC’s main studio rule and public inspection file rules, and also required the licensee to “submit a statement signed under penalty of perjury by an officer or director of the licensee that . . . [the Station’s] public inspection file is complete.” In response to the FCC’s directive, last August the licensee submitted a certification stating that “[i]n coordination with [an independent consultant], all missing materials cited have been placed in the Station’s Public Inspection File, and the undersigned confirms that it is complete as of the date of this response.”
Agents from the Enforcement Bureau’s Houston Office returned to inspect the station’s public inspection file last October and it turned out that once again the file did not contain any issues-programs lists. The agents also determined that none of the station employees present had knowledge of the station having ever kept issues-programs lists in the public inspection file.
In response to a Letter of Inquiry from the Enforcement Bureau regarding the missing lists, the licensee told the FCC that that the issues-programs folder was empty due to an “oversight” and that the licensee believed that the public file contained daily program logs of the programming aired by the party brokering time on the station. The licensee also stated in its response that it had hired an outside consultant to review the public file, who apparently indicated to the licensee that the public file “was complete.”
Based on that follow-up visit, the Bureau released its first of two NALs issued on June 14, 2012, and cited the AM station for a failure to exercise “even minimal diligence prior to the submission” of its August certification stating that it was in full compliance with the FCC’s Public Inspection File Rules. In addressing the licensee’s violations, the Bureau noted that in 2003 the FCC expanded the scope of violations of Section 1.17 which states that no person should provide, in any written statement of fact, “material factual information that is incorrect or omit material information that is necessary to prevent any material factual statement that is made from being incorrect or misleading without a reasonable basis for believing that any such material factual statement is correct and not misleading.”
As a result, information provided to the FCC – even if not intended to purposefully mislead the FCC – can result in fines if the licensee does not have “a reasonable basis for believing” that the information submitted is accurate. Licensees therefore need to be aware that an intent to deceive the Commission is not a prerequisite to receiving a fine; inaccurate statements or omissions that are the result of negligence can be costly as well.
As if that were not enough, the Bureau issued a second NAL on the same day in which it assessed a further fine against the licensee in the amount of $15,000 for failing to make available a “complete public inspection file.” In determining the amount of this forfeiture, the Bureau noted that although the base forfeiture amount is $10,000 for public file rule violations, given the previous inspection by the agents from the Bureau’s Houston Office, the licensee had a history of prior offenses warranting an upward adjustment in the forfeiture amount. The Bureau therefore concluded that because the licensee had violated the public inspection file rule twice within a one-year period – including after being informed that it had violated the Commission’s rule – “its actions demonstrate[ed] a deliberate disregard for the Commission’s rules and a pattern of non-compliance,” warranting a $5,000 upward adjustment in the forfeiture amount.
This case is noteworthy because it demonstrates that parties dealing with the Commission must be mindful that, prior to submitting any application, report, or other filing to the FCC, it is important to ensure that the information being provided is accurate and complete in all respects. It also is significant for the high dollar amount of the fines the FCC issued to the licensee of a Class D AM station in a period of less than 12 months based on fairly common public file and main studio rule violations.