The former owners of Channel 48 television sued Cornerstone Church and the Rev. Robert Pitts yesterday, alleging that the church and associate pastor conspired with others to illegally and fraudulently wrest control of the low-power, Toledo-based station.
The suit, filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court and assigned to Judge Linda Jennings, makes broad allegations that Cornerstone and Mr. Pitts plotted for years to seize control of TV-48 from longtime owners Linda and Lamaree "Marty" Miller.
The 6,000-watt station, now known as WMNT-TV, is broadcast on Channel 48 and carried on Buckeye CableSystem's Channel 58. It features a mix of mainstream programming.
The new lawsuit asks for more than $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, claiming that the Maumee Pentecostal church and Mr. Pitts fraudulently obtained shares of ownership in the station, intentionally ran up bills, created "fictitious" debts, conspired with a leasing company to force the station into receivership, then "controlled" the court-appointed receiver as their "puppet."
Mr. Pitts and two of Cornerstone's attorneys, Bruce Schoenberger and Howard Hershman, yesterday called the lawsuit irresponsible and without merit.
"It's just another baseless accusation like Marty's made for years," Mr. Pitts said.
He bristled at the suit's description of the receiver, Ralph DeNune III, as a "puppet" controlled by him and Cornerstone. "That comment is negligent and reckless. Ralph DeNune is one of the gems of the Toledo legal community," Mr. Pitts said.
The lawsuit also names as defendants Teletech Inc., a Westland, Mich., firm that rented space to the Millers for TV-48's transmitter, and Mark Dobronski, a Teletech vice president.
It states that "the actions of all defendants were planned, arranged, and orchestrated in the form of a civil conspiracy to commit fraud" upon the Millers.
It alleges that Mr. Pitts and Cornerstone viewed the Millers' debt to Teletech as "an opportunity to force L&M Video Productions Inc. into receivership in order to gain control of the said company and the broadcast license associated with it."
The lawsuit claims that although L&M Video's debt to Teletech "had already actually been paid in full," Mr. Pitts and Mr. Dobronski conspired to initiate legal action against the Millers to collect on the "fictitious debt," forcing L&M Video into receivership. From that point, Cornerstone and Mr. Pitts began controlling both the station and Mr. DeNune, the Millers' suit says.
The Millers and Cornerstone have been fighting over Channel 48 in court for years.
The Millers bought the station in 1996 and received $20,000 from Cornerstone a year later in what the church said was a loan but which the Millers described as an investment.
The two sides entered into a settlement and corporate agreement in 2003, but that arrangement ended in 2005.
Mr. DeNune put Channel 48 up for auction last year and Cornerstone bought the station for $913,854.39. In May, the Federal Communications Commission transferred its broadcast license to a Cornerstone subsidiary, Matrix Broadcasting Communications Inc.
Mr. Schoenberger and Mr. Hershman said yesterday, shortly after receiving a copy of the lawsuit, that they were considering various legal responses.
One would be to cite res judicata, a limit to the number of lawsuits that a plaintiff can file over the same incident or case, and another would be to ask the judge to dismiss the lawsuit over its lack of details, Mr. Schoenberger said.
The law "requires matters of fraud and conspiracy to be pled with specificity and detail. You can't just say, 'You defrauded me,'•" he said.
Neither Mr. Miller nor his attorney, Robert Bahret, returned phone calls yesterday.
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