The Federal Communications Commission, now under Republican control, has voted to take another look at last year's decision to strip RKO General Inc. of television licenses in three major markets.
The decision, one of the toughest and subsequently most controversial enforcement actions in the commission's history, stemmed from the admitted overseas-slush-fund activities of the firm's parent company, General Tire & Rubber Co.
In issuing the initial decision, the FCC said the "nature and scope of the misconduct by RKO and its parent corporation, General Tire, was so extensive and serious" that the FCC "could not be assured that RKO" would operate its stations in compliance with FCC standards. The commission said the record indicated a pattern of "wrongdoing unique in commission annals."
Late last week, the FCC voted unanimously in closed session to consider asking an appeals court here to remand the decision back to the commission for further consideration -- a suggestion proposed by RKO lawyers.
"From what I've seen, they're simply asking to have it brought back because the commission's personalities have changed," said Terry Lenzner, a lawyer representing New England Television Corp., a group that is seeking one of the RKO licenses in question.
Lenzner, former deputy counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee, conducted a massive investigation of the General Tire payments. General Tire admitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had maintained an illegal slush fund for payments here and abroad from 1971 until 1976.
Since two of the commission's four members who voted to support the action, former FCC chairman Charles Ferris and former commissioner Tyrone Brown, have left the agency, some observers expect the commission to adopt the RKO position and ask the court to return the case to the FCC.
The three opponents of the decision to deny the RKO licenses are still on the commission. The FCC's new chairman, Mark Fowler, just took his position Monday after the move to bring up the RKO matter, and one vacancy remains on the commission, although President Reagan has nominated Mary Weyforth, an aide to Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.).
One RKO lawyer is Dean Burch, a former FCC chairman and a policy adviser to the Reagan transition team on communications and other regulatory matters.
The January 1980 decision stripped RKO of television stations WNAC-TV in Boston, KHJ-TV in Los Angeles and WOR-TV in New York, which represent a significant part of the company's broadcast holdings and are valued a high as $600 million. The commission has deferred a decision on the licenses of 13 RKO radio stations, including WGMS AM and FM here, pending the outcome of the appeals court proceeding.
RKO's request for reconsideration of the issue came just as the period for filing appeals court briefs on the FCC decision came to a close. In a letter to FCC Acting General Counsel Marjorie Reed dated May 12, two lawyers for RKO said that the commission erred in denying RKO's licenses "without affording it statutorily mandated notice and hearing procedures on issues that were critical" to the case.
Eugene F. Mullin, a lawyer representing another competing group, told Reed, that "RKO thinks it can get a different decision from a reconstituted commission . . .
"To accede to RKO's wish -- in circumstances where nothing has changed since the decision except the membership of the commission -- would not only be improper as a matter of law but would display the commission before the court as capricious, if not ridiculous," Mullin wrote.