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Probe Finds Broadcast Chief Broke Law, Played Politics

Times Staff Writer

The former chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting broke federal law and repeatedly violated the organization’s rules and code of ethics in his efforts to promote conservatives in the system, an endeavor that included consultation with White House officials, according to the findings of an internal investigation made public Tuesday.

The 67-page report -- the culmination of a six-month investigation by Kenneth A. Konz, the corporation’s inspector general -- portrays former Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson as a rogue appointee who often exceeded his authority in his determination to address what he viewed as a liberal tilt in public broadcasting.

Konz’s report depicts the corporation as a deeply dysfunctional institution in which there has been little oversight over hiring and contracting and minimal communication between the professional staff and the board, made up of political appointees.

In his report, Konz agreed that Tomlinson -- a Republican who was originally appointed by President Clinton -- overstepped his boundaries and broke corporation rules. But he did not conclude that Tomlinson was seeking to remake the corporation as a conservative institution, as critics have charged, noting that the former chairman was following the CPB’s mandate to ensure objectivity and balance in public broadcasting.

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In a statement included in the inspector general’s report, Tomlinson, who resigned his board position this month, denied any wrongdoing. He called the findings a triumph of “politics over good judgment” and disputed the charges as “malicious and irresponsible.”

“Unfortunately, the inspector general’s preconceived and unjustified findings will only help to maintain the status quo, and other reformers will be discouraged from seeking change,” Tomlinson said.

According to the report, Tomlinson consulted with Bush administration officials -- including Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove -- about his efforts, even though the former chairman told The Times in May that he had had “absolutely no contact from anyone at the White House saying we need to do this or that with public broadcasting.”

However, Konz discovered that in late 2003 and again this year, Tomlinson exchanged e-mails with White House officials about possible candidates to serve as the corporation’s president. Some of the notes discussed Tomlinson’s desire to hire Patricia Harrison, a former Republican Party co-chairwoman, whom the board appointed to the post in June.

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“While cryptic in nature, their timing and subject matter give the appearance that the former chairman was strongly motivated by political considerations in filling the president/CEO position,” Konz wrote.

The corporation, a private nonprofit organization that distributes federal funding to local TV and radio stations, is supposed to act as a buffer between Congress and broadcasters.

In an interview, the inspector general said Tomlinson exchanged e-mails with “two or three” White House officials, including Rove. He declined to name the other officials or provide copies of the e-mails, which were given to the full board in a separate report.

Konz concluded that Tomlinson’s efforts to hire Harrison violated provisions of the Federal Broadcasting Act, which prohibits the use of “political tests” in employment.

He also determined that the former chairman broke federal law barring interference in programming when he promoted the development of “The Journal Editorial Report,” a public affairs program on the Public Broadcasting Service featuring the conservative editorial page board of the Wall Street Journal. The report said Tomlinson urged PBS to air the program even as he offered editorial page editor Paul Gigot advice about the program’s format.

The report said Tomlinson was so zealous in what he termed his pursuit of political balance that he instructed corporation staff to threaten to withhold federal funds from PBS to achieve it -- an action that would have required congressional approval.

CPB officials declined to comment on Tomlinson’s specific actions, but board Chairwoman Cheryl Halpern called Konz’s findings “bracing” and pledged to swiftly initiate changes. During a morning meeting at the organization’s Washington headquarters, the board approved the creation of new committees to improve checks and balances.

For her part, Harrison said she was determined to repair “a rip in trust” created by the furor over Tomlinson’s actions.

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“I’m not going to take this report and put it in a drawer,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

The release of Konz’s investigation comes during a turbulent period for public broadcasters, who were demoralized by allegations that Tomlinson used his position to advance conservatives on and off the air.

As details of Tomlinson’s actions emerged, Democratic lawmakers and liberal interest groups accused him of misusing his position and injecting partisanship into the organization. In May, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) asked Konz to investigate the then-chairman’s tenure. On Tuesday, the congressmen said the report confirmed their suspicions that Tomlinson had a political agenda. They called for further institutional changes to guard against similar actions.

“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting needs significant reform and vigorous oversight to preserve the political neutrality that Mr. Tomlinson pretended he wanted but did so much to prevent,” Obey said.

White House officials refused to be interviewed by the inspector general, saying he lacked jurisdiction to pose questions to officials outside federal agencies. The report does not draw conclusions about the administration’s involvement with Tomlinson’s efforts.

Critics called on Konz to release the details of Tomlinson’s contact with the White House.

“Unfortunately, this fits exactly with a long pattern of unbridled, all-out partisanship and cronyism in so much of what this administration does,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

On Tuesday, Harrison, a former State Department official, said Tomlinson never expressed a desire to hire her because of her GOP credentials. “I do not have a political agenda,” she said.

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But the report suggests that politics may have influenced other hiring decisions. During his tenure, Tomlinson recommended several candidates, including an unnamed applicant for a senior position who was “referred with the strong support of the White House.” Another job candidate was asked by an unidentified board member about her political contributions in the last election.

The inspector general documented numerous occasions in which Tomlinson circumvented CPB contracting procedures. According to the report, Tomlinson mishandled a contract with a consultant who monitored the political leanings of the guests on “Now With Bill Moyers” and three other programs by failing to get board approval and authorizing payments without written documentation of work. Konz also found that Tomlinson hired two ombudsmen this spring without considering other candidates. Tomlinson faces another probe related to his other post, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The influential agency oversees the government’s international broadcast services. The State Department’s inspector general is investigating Tomlinson’s actions there.


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