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Published: Sunday, 3/25/2007

Low-power Toledo TV station produces a high-stakes drama

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Tune in to WMNT-TV, Channel 48, and you might catch a rerun of Outer Limits, Cops, the news show Daily Buzz, or a Detroit Pistons basketball game.

But if you could tune in to the behind-the-scenes action, you d discover a local television station caught up in the kind of drama and controversy found in soap operas and Hollywood thrillers.

Although the station s 11,000-watt over-the-air signal barely reaches all of Toledo, Channel 48 has been at the center of a whirlwind of legal and governmental disputes involving Cornerstone Church, dozens of lawyers, one county court and two federal courts, a debt estimated at over $1.5 million, and allegations of death threats.

Any day now, the Federal Communications Commission may resolve the long-simmering dispute over who holds the low-power station s broadcast license.

Although the station Channel 48 over the air and 58 on Buckeye CableSystem does not have enough viewers to make the Nielsen ratings, its fate is being closely watched by many especially by creditors and investors who made substantial investments.

Standing at the center of this vortex are Lamaree Marty Miller and his wife, Linda, a Toledo couple who bought the station a decade ago for $160,000.

The Millers called the station WNGT-TV, for New Generation Television, and they powered up the transmitter for the first time at 3 p.m. on June 20, 1996.

Perhaps a sign of the troubles to come, the transmitter crashed almost immediately. Mr. Miller, a trained broadcast engineer, managed to get it back on the air momentarily, but it soon shut down again and WNGT was off the air for the first several days the Millers owned and operated it.

But the Millers were proud to say it was the first and only minority-owned television station based in Toledo.

Today, the couple assert that their hard work and know-how have raised the value of the station renamed WMNT-TV in September, 2006 to more than $4 million. But they also admit they ve never been able to get it on solid financial ground and have struggled to pay the bills from day one.

Reverend Michael Pitts Reverend Michael Pitts
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When we started, we only had $50,000 in capital, Mr. Miller said. I was working at a Detroit station that paid $50,000 for a single camera. By all accounts, we should have been off the air in the first month.

The Millers managed to keep the station running on a shoestring budget. They bought the necessary gear, hired a small staff, and held off creditors by taking out loans or selling stock in their two TV 48-related corporations first L&M Video Productions Inc., then the additional L&M Broadcasting Inc.

Several backers told The Blade that when they first became involved with WNGT, they shared the Millers dream that a minority-owned TV station could be successful, both financially and socially, by providing quality programming that met the needs of Toledo s African-American community.

Somewhere along the journey, however, the Millers and most investors wound up parting ways.

Church connection

One of the most high-profile backers of TV 48 has been Cornerstone Church, a large Pentecostal church in Maumee which itself has been a lightning rod for controversy at times.

Cornerstone s senior pastor, the Rev. Michael Pitts, was in the news a decade ago after being arrested and charged with eight counts of public indecency. In a 1998 trial that made front-page news, the indecency charges were dismissed and the pastor was convicted of misdemeanor trespassing.

More controversy followed, including Mr. Pitts arrest in December on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol. That case, his second DUI charge in 6 years, is pending in Maumee Municipal Court.

The Rev. Robert Pitts, Michael s elder brother by a year, oversees the business end of Cornerstone Church. Founded by Michael Pitts on June 1, 1986, with, as the church history states, a Bible in one hand and a $1,000 offering given to him by his parents in the other, Cornerstone s Maumee church now has weekly attendance of more than 6,000 people. The Pitts brothers oversee a network of 26 churches in the United States, Mexico, and South Africa.

Robert Pitts said Cornerstone poured more than $800,000 into TV 48 over an eight-year period and that although the church never set out to own a television station, it will not walk away from such a large investment.

It s like Iraq we re in too deep to just pull out, he told The Blade.

Reverend Robert Pitts Reverend Robert Pitts
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Ups and downs

When the Millers and Cornerstone first began their financial dealings a decade ago, they were amicable business partners. But the relationship has gone through many ups and downs.

Mr. Miller, 49, said he and his wife were members of Cornerstone in the 1990s and approached the pastors with a business proposal in the fall of 1997.

He said he believed that WUPW-TV, Channel 36, canceled Cornerstone s weekly church program Present Truth because of the controversy surrounding Michael Pitts indecency arrest.

As a concerned church member and an independent businessman, Mr. Miller said, he felt it would be beneficial for all concerned if Cornerstone signed with TV 48 to broadcast its services. The proposal called for Cornerstone to buy the airtime for $1,000 a week.

One of Cornerstone s associate pastors, the Rev. Jeffrey Smith, told The Blade at the time that WUPW felt that it was in the best interest of the community that this program not continue to air, citing the coverage of Michael Pitts arrest.

But Robert Pitts recently said WUPW never canceled the Cornerstone contract and asserted that it was solely the church s decision not to renew the deal. He also said Cornerstone does not broadcast its services on TV 48 but instead streams the services live on the Internet.

Gary Yoder, WUPW s general sales manager, concurred with Mr. Pitts, saying the station did not force Cornerstone off the air in 1997 and that the church voluntarily opted not to buy more airtime. Cornerstone remains a good friend of Channel 36 and advertises regularly, Mr. Yoder added.

On another issue, Robert Pitts said he does not believe the Millers ever were members of his church.

Marty wants to claim that, because it sounds evil here s this church member and I took advantage of him, he said. I never remember seeing Marty at more than two or three services in a span of 15 years. Linda may have been a greeter for some time ... I think they showed some kind of document that Linda was on a greeter schedule in 92. But I can t remember 15 years ago. ... And Marty s never been an active member of our church. I can prove that on a number of levels.

Marty Miller and his wife, Linda, fulfilled a dream when they bought a low-power television station in 1996, the first minority-owned TV outlet in Toledo. Marty Miller and his wife, Linda, fulfilled a dream when they bought a low-power television station in 1996, the first minority-owned TV outlet in Toledo.
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Early transactions

After the Millers approached Cornerstone, the church agreed to give the station $10,000 around Christmas, 1997, and another $20,000 two months later.

The church called it a loan; the Millers contend the funds gave Cornerstone an option to buy TV 48 stock.

Either way, Mr. Miller admits he would have fallen short of meeting the station s payroll obligations without Cornerstone s help.

After the second transaction, Robert Pitts said he told the Millers that they had to be more responsible with their finances.

We said, Look, Marty, this isn t an endless black hole here. If we re going to get involved, then we want to do it properly.

Whatever the financial arrangement, that first $30,000 marked the beginning of a long and contentious relationship between the Pitts brothers and the Millers.

At times, Mr. Miller viewed the Pittses as saviors who met the station s budget shortfalls, made sure that he and his wife were paid, and regularly spent tens of thousands of dollars to settle TV 48 liens and outstanding debts.

At other times, Mr. Miller viewed the Pittses as devils, who were scheming to pry his beloved station away from him for a fraction of its market value.

Looking back, Mr. Miller said recently, he believes the Pitts brothers began plotting against him almost immediately.

I think they figured, Why spend money for airtime when we could own the station? Mr. Miller said.

Robert Pitts vehemently denies that allegation, saying the church was simply investing in a local media outlet. He believed that a minority-owned TV station is a valuable asset to the community and wanted to support the station.

He said he has spent more time with Mr. Miller than anybody else in the last eight years and that Mr. Miller s estimation of him changes drastically depending on the circumstances the financial circumstances, to be precise.

I was a good guy in 1998, a bad guy in 99, a good guy in 2000, a bad guy in 2001, Robert Pitts said. I m tired of it.

He said Cornerstone paid off a $76,000 IRS lien against TV 48 that would have shut the station down. The television station would be virtually worthless if it did not continue broadcasting because its FCC license is its primary asset, he added.

Public discord

After acquiring 37 percent ownership of TV 48, Cornerstone took whatever steps were necessary to keep it on the air, he said.

The first public sign of discord came in January, 2001, when Mr. Miller told The Blade that he was battling a hostile takeover attempt by Cornerstone. He said the Reynolds Road church was buying his shareholders private stock behind his back with the goal of quietly gaining control of WNGT.

Michael Pitts said at the time that the stock deals were intended to save the station from imminent financial ruin.

According to Robert Pitts, it was Mr. Miller s suggestion that he buy out the shareholders, complaining that they were hesitant to invest any more money in TV 48.

He wanted the shareholders taken out, Robert Pitts said recently. He claimed, in multiple meetings, that they were his problem because they wouldn t put any more money in, they wouldn t sign for more loans, they had antagonistic relationships with Marty.

Dan Cole, a shareholder who sold his $50,000 worth of stock to Cornerstone in 2001, said at the time that he agreed to the transaction because he felt Mr. Miller lacked the skills to run a business.

I feel sorry for him. This was his dream, Mr. Cole told The Blade. And he s done everything he possibly could. But he needed other people to help him with financial matters.

Legal battle

In June, 2003, the TV 48 saga took another sharp turn when The Blade reported that a coalition of three labor unions had signed an agreement to buy a 50 percent ownership of WNGT for $1 million.

At about the same time, the Millers also revealed they were looking at a $1.7 million purchase agreement from a local investment group led by Toledo Realtor Dan DiSalle.

Cornerstone s pastors and their attorneys were dumbfounded.

We re sitting here as 37 percent shareholders saying, How did they do that without telling us? Robert Pitts said. So we went to court, of course.

The church obtained a temporary restraining order halting all negotiations on sale of the station.

Then, in September, 2003, Cornerstone and the Millers signed a settlement agreement and a corporate agreement. Those contracts gave Cornerstone control of the station s board of directors, with Robert Pitts serving as president.

The contract specified that Mr. Miller would work full time and Mrs. Miller part time at the station, earning a combined salary of $100,000 per year. But the Millers were barred from all financial dealings involving WNGT.

One key clause, however, stated that if the FCC did not approve the agreement between Cornerstone and the Millers within 270 days, either party had the option to terminate the contract.

Mr. Miller contends that the contract was null and void after 270 days passed without the FCC s approval.

Mr. Pitts and his attorneys counter by saying that the Millers agreed to extend the contract indefinitely.

Trading allegations

For about 15 months after the signing of the corporate agreement, Cornerstone operated TV 48, investing what Robert Pitts said was hundreds of thousands of dollars that went to pay operating expenses and salaries and settle outstanding debts.

Mr. Miller claims that while he was shut out of the station s financial dealings, the church was artificially running up the bills with the intention of forcing TV 48 into bankruptcy or receivership, after which it could then buy the station for a pittance.

Robert Pitts, on the other hand, said the church was paying for operating costs such as equipment leases and office space, negotiating the Millers debts, paying the Millers and other staffers salaries, taking care of payroll taxes, and catching up on years worth of accounting work that the Millers had neglected. During this time, advertising revenue was down and the deficits continued to mount, he said.

A deepening dispute

Everything came to a screeching halt in January, 2005.

Cornerstone attorney Jeffrey Nelson sent a letter to the Millers and their attorney saying that the church had just learned of two outstanding court judgments totaling more than $466,000 against the Millers and L&M Video Productions.

That discovery forced Cornerstone to cancel its corporate agreement with the Millers, Robert Pitts said.

Mr. Miller contended that he had told Cornerstone about both of the outstanding judgments.

One, for $228,000, resulted from a lawsuit filed by Myron and Sandra Stewart, publishers of the Toledo Journal newspaper, who sued the Millers and L&M Video Productions Inc., in September, 2000, alleging that the Millers failed to pay rent on an office lease.

Mr. Miller called it the most crazy court judgment in history, asserting that he never used the Stewarts building for his station s office but only to store old program tapes.

The second judgment involved Teletech Inc., a Michigan firm that provided space for WNGT s transmitter.

Cornerstone Church, located near the intersection of Reynolds Road and Dussel Drive in Maumee, has a weekly attendance of approximately 6,000, according to the church s leaders. Cornerstone Church, located near the intersection of Reynolds Road and Dussel Drive in Maumee, has a weekly attendance of approximately 6,000, according to the church s leaders.
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The company filed a motion in court seeking to collect on an August, 2000, judgment against the Millers and L&M Video, which by January, 2005, totaled $238,447 with interest.

It has been a nightmare dealing with Marty Miller, said Mark Dobronski, Teletech vice president. The man thinks nothing of writing very large bum checks that when you try to deposit them in the bank, they go boing, boing, boing. He s called and said he ll make good on it, but if you give the guy an inch, he takes a mile and I mean takes.

Mr. Dobronski also told Mr. Miller that he would be arrested if he stepped foot in the One SeaGate building downtown, where the station s transmitter is located on the roof.

Mr. Miller, who earned a degree in visual communications from Bowling Green State University, said he suspects Mr. Dobronski was conspiring with Cornerstone to keep him from tuning up the transmitter, thereby ruining the station s signal and his reputation. As the quality of the broadcast signal deteriorated, it became harder to sell ads on TV 48 and caused more financial hardships for him and the station, he said.

Threats alleged

Mr. Miller s problems with Teletech intensified when Mr. Dobronski, who is a retired Arizona judge, alleged that either Mr. Miller or his friends made threatening calls to his home in the middle of the night.

In an interview with The Blade, Mr. Dobronski described them as nasty phone calls, and did not use the term death threats.

But Mr. Miller, in filings with the Federal Communications Commission, said he was accused of threatening to kill Mr. Dobronski.

This accusation of me is totally false. This was an effort of Cornerstone and now Teletech Inc. to harass and intimidate me and damage the company, Mr. Miller wrote.

This kind of statement made to an African-American male from a white American can be very intimidating and can become a nightmare if law officials were to believe this story. It is now very evident that Cornerstone Inc. and Teletech Inc. (a creditor of L&M) have joined forces to take this FCC broadcast license by force, Mr. Miller wrote.

Mr. Dobronski called Cornerstone Church the only hope for making TV 48 profitable and for Teletech to collect on the court judgment.

In this case, I say, Follow Jesus, Mr. Dobronski said.

Rougher than rough

Mr. Miller said the stress from dealing with Cornerstone Church has taken a heavy toll on him and his family.

Last June, he moved his wife and two young daughters to another state, claiming that he fears for their safety. He also said his wife suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and that her condition is exacerbated by stress.

Last May, the Millers filed for corporate bankruptcy.

In January, Mr. Miller filed for personal bankruptcy.

The couple s home has been in foreclosure, he said.

This has been rougher than rough, Mr. Miller said. I m getting about four hours of sleep a night. When a car comes by, I jump up. You just never know.

Contact David Yonke at:dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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