For the third time in a year, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Mary Ann Whipple has dismissed a Chapter 11 filing by former owners of WMNT-TV seeking to regain control of the station from Cornerstone Church.
In a decision issued Monday, Judge Whipple said the board of L&M Video Productions Inc., which formerly owned and operated the low-power Toledo station, tried to use the bankruptcy filing "primarily as a litigation tactic rather than for the purpose of a business reorganization."
She said L&M Video did not show an ability to make the station profitable, and "the mere possibility" of new investors or lenders was not enough to merit bankruptcy protection.
Cornerstone Church and L&M Video's owners, Lamaree "Marty" Miller and his wife, Linda, have been fighting in court for years over control of the 11,000-watt station, which is broadcast on Channel 48 and carried on Buckeye CableSystem on Channel 58. The Millers, who had been the only minority owners of a Toledo TV station, borrowed $20,000 from Cornerstone in December, 1997, starting a long-term business relationship that ultimately turned sour.
The Pentecostal church in Maumee, which has more than 6,000 weekly attendance, testified that it had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the station.
Cornerstone won a $650,000 judgment against L&M Video in Lucas County Common Pleas Court and was the high bidder for Channel 48's assets when the station, formerly WNGT, was auctioned by a court-appointed receiver in October, 2005.
In May, the Federal Communications Commission assigned Channel 48's broadcast license to a Cornerstone subsidiary, Matrix Broadcast Media.
But the Millers and their supporters have filed a series of legal actions in state and federal court and objections with the FCC seeking to prevent the church and the Rev. Robert Pitts, associate and business pastor, from obtaining control of the station.
Judge Whipple's latest decision granted Cornerstone's motion to dismiss the case by "abstaining from exercising jurisdiction," a legal move that she said "significantly limits" the possibility of an appeal.
Citing legal precedent that called such an abstention "an extraordinary remedy that should be used sparingly," Judge Whipple said it was appropriate because it best serves the interests of creditors and debtors.
Earl Murry, a University of Toledo professor elected president of L&M Video's board in February, testified in Judge Whipple's court on June 11 that a new group of investors loaned up to $70,000 to L&M, and was willing to spend "whatever it takes" to make the station profitable.
He said he lined up more than 50 businesses willing to buy advertising on the station if it were run by L&M.
The judge said in her decision, though "the court finds Murry to be sincere in his commitment, he was the only board member to testify and no written commitment or letter of intent was offered" to demonstrate the board's financial involvement.
Mr. Murry yesterday said he has directed L&M Video's attorney, Grady Pettigrew of Columbus, to ask Judge Whipple to reconsider her decision.
If she declines to do so, he will appeal the ruling to a higher court.
He asserted there were at least five legal errors in the judge's decision and claimed the ruling was racially biased against Mr. Miller and himself, both African-Americans.
"Race and color got in the way," Mr. Murry said. "This is an African-American businessman, and northwest Ohio is clearly a racist environment in multiple ways in courts."
Judge Whipple declined to comment on Mr. Murry's allegation of racism.
"She believes the court can speak only through its orders," said Karen Declercq, the judge's law clerk.
Mr. Pitts called the allegation "irresponsible," and said Mr. Miller and Mr. Murry "can make all the claims that they want, but race has nothing to do with this." He said Cornerstone officials "are very pleased with her ruling.
"It's a shame we have to go through these court proceedings when they really don't have anything to present," Mr. Pitts said.
Howard Hershman, Cornerstone's attorney, said, "After three times with no progress, the case just didn't have any business being in bankruptcy court."
- David Yonke