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Pacifica to Skip KPFA Hearing
Chairwoman says legislative body has no authority

Charles Burress, Chronicle Staff Writer
  Tuesday, August 17, 1999

Supporters of beleaguered KPFA radio were rocked in opposite directions yesterday by two surprise disclosures from the head of the station's governing Pacifica Foundation.

Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the Pacifica board, said Pacifica is refusing requests to appear at a special hearing Friday by the state's Joint Legislative Audit Committee on the continuing dispute between KPFA and Pacifica.

KPFA partisans have hailed the hearing as a high-profile, government-sponsored probe of what they view as Pacifica's authoritarian attempts to control the iconoclastic, listener-sponsored station. The hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. at the Elihu Harris State Building in Oakland.

At the same time, Berry also said Pacifica decided to ask prosecutors to drop charges against pro-KPFA demonstrators arrested in various protests at the 50-year-old, left-leaning station. More than 100 people were arrested in a wave of Berkeley protests that was said to be the largest in the city since the Vietnam War.

She said Pacifica does not recognize the jurisdiction of the joint audit committee, the Legislature's chief investigative arm, to summon Pacifica, a private nonprofit corporation. However, she said, Pacifica will cooperate by responding to written questions.

The hearing was called at the request of 24 state senators and Assembly members -- a fifth of the Legislature -- to probe the bitter dispute that saw KPFA locked and boarded up by Pacifica for nearly three weeks last month.

Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D- Burbank/Glendale), who chairs the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said his office was ``given every indication'' that Pacifica and KPFA representatives would testify.

The sponsor of the request for the hearing, Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley/Richmond), said she would be ``amazed that anybody would turn down an opportunity, particularly in this highly volatile situation, to come into a neutral arena, the Legislative Audit Committee, where nobody has taken sides, and share their story and position.''

She said Pacifica's tax-exempt status means that the foundation ``in effect'' receives state money and is therefore subject to the scrutiny of the committee.

Berry, who heads the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, compared the committee to the federal General Accounting Office, saying it has jurisdiction only over government or government-funded entities.

Larry Bensky, a veteran KPFA and Pacifica journalist fired for talking about the dispute on the air, called Pacifica's refusal ``a complete reversal'' of statements made earlier by Pacifica's executive director, Lynn Chadwick, welcoming the hearing as a way for Pacifica to have the full story of the conflict told.

``These people recognize nobody's authority but their own,'' he said.

Aroner said she understood that Chadwick would testify at the hearing, although Berry said no one from Pacifica would appear. Chadwick could not be reached yesterday.

Berry said KPFA employees may testify as individuals but not as official representatives of Pacifica or KPFA. KPFA is the flagship of Pacifica's politically progressive five-station network.

Berry said Pacifica decided to ask the Alameda County district attorney's office to drop charges against demonstrators ``because we believe in free expression.'' Most of the arrests were citizen's arrests by Pacifica staff members who alleged that protesters blocked doorways and trespassed.

After widespread criticism, Pacifica returned control of the station to the staff last month in what Berry called a ``good faith effort.''

Berry's statement on asking that charges be dropped came late yesterday afternoon after the district attorney's office was closed. No one from the office could be reached.

``It's overdue,'' said Riba Enteen, an attorney representing the demonstrators. ``Everybody I've talked to said no jury in Berkeley would convict this set of demonstrators when there were no allegations of violence.''

More than half the arrests took place July 13 during an occupation of the building by protesters immediately after Pacifica suspended KPFA program host Dennis Bernstein for allegedly breaking the so- called ``gag rule'' against talking about the conflict on the air.

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©1999 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A14

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