The Federal Communications Commission, meeting in closed session yesterday, set aside an earlier staff decision granting a Traverse City, Mich., television station license to the Panax Corp., because of information "received since that staff decision" concerning Panax president John McGoff.
The surprise action came after the Media Access Project, a public-interest communications law firm, protested the routine granting of the WGTU-TV license by the agency's broadcast bureau.
On June 4, only four days after Panax was granted the WGTU-TV license as well as a construction permit for a satellite TV station, WGTQ-TV in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., a South African government commission issued a report alleging that McGoff had been provided secretly an estimated $11 million by the South African government in order to purchase The Washington Star.
McGoff denied those charges when they had been made earlier in published reports from South Africa, but a Justice Department investigation into his ties with that country is continuing.
McGoff, a conservative publisher, also has been linked with an ongoing propaganda campaign that reportedly was conducted by the South African government, but no formal charges have been made. The Justice Department reportedly is attempting to ascertain whether McGoff should have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Yesterday's FCC reversal is going to cause major complications, since the sale of the television station was consumated for about $925,000 shortly after the FCC staff approved the license transfer.
Now, according to FCC broadcast bureau director Richard Shiben, Panax will have to "unscramble the egg," and return the station to its previous owners, Michigan Television Network, Inc., and get back the $925,000, until the matter is resolved ultimately by further FCC investigation.
Even after Media Access Project director Andrew Schwartzman complained about the license approval, late last month, Shiben had defended his staff's action. Since McGoff had not been charged formally with anything, shiben said, there would be no obvious reason to hold up the license. "We have a premise in this country that your are innocent until proven guilty."
But yesterday, FCC Chairman Charles Ferris said the commission decided to set aside its staff action because "we felt that we have to develop further these issues that go to the basic qualifications of the licensee."
Ferris added that "when we issue a license we essentially issue a character qualification judgment for the licensee. We don't think we have the record before us to do that now in this case."