Kill the Radio

Jim Petro cracks down on . . . blind people?

"Even murderers get due process," says David Loyd. "What - happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'?" - WALTER  NOVAK
"Even murderers get due process," says David Loyd. "What happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'?"
David Binkley sits at his desk at the WCRS studios in Akron, trying his best to describe how one reads the Sunday comics over the radio.

"Very carefully," he jokes.

The 45-year-old can't quite explain how he describes Crankshaft to 6,500 blind listeners every Sunday afternoon, though he's been doing it since 1979.

Binkley is one of three employees and 80 volunteers who work for Written Communications Radio Service, a station that reads everything from the Akron Beacon Journal to this rag for the blind and visually impaired.

For the past 30 years, WCRS has read breaking news, magazines, obituaries, and grocery store ads to the nine-county area. But thanks to Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, that came to an end last Sunday.

It all started back in January 2005, when Petro sent WCRS a letter, notifying the station that it was under investigation. He cited concerns about the nonprofit's bingo operations.

For the past 16 years, WCRS's major funding has come from chain-smoking old ladies, anxiously waiting to hear "N-39."

Before the days of bingo, says operations manager David Loyd, the station relied on the generosity of big rubber companies. But when Firestone and Goodyear rolled out, WCRS had to find a new cash crop.

So in 1990, the station moved into the crumbling Akron Rollercade, converted the roller rink into a giant bingo hall, and renovated remaining space for its studios. It also secured charity licenses for both traditional and instant bingo. The games produced 85 percent of the station's funding.

There was never any trouble until Petro came calling, saying that he had suspicions of improprieties. (Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Kim Norris declined comment.)

The station cooperated by handing over all the check stubs, ledgers, receipts, bank statements, and tax forms in its possession.

But last July, Petro's office said that those records weren't sufficient. It wanted every document dating back to 2002, including all instant-bingo receipts. "We were all working like mad to photocopy every piece of paper we had," Loyd says.

Then, in October, Petro charged the station with falsely identifying itself as an educational organization in order to obtain its license for the past 15 years.

"The funny part about that was that when we first applied for the license in the '90s, it was the Attorney General's Office that suggested we apply as an educational organization," Loyd says. "Now they're saying we're not? OK, fine."

Loyd and his colleagues got out the Ohio Revised Code and discovered that WCRS was actually a "service" organization. Loyd apologized for the mistake and reapplied for a 2006 license under the new designation.

But that still wasn't good enough for Petro.

He accused the station of misappropriating funds, citing $95,000 in checks written to cash without supporting receipts or invoices.

"What he didn't explain was that that was over a five-year period," Loyd says. "We're constantly running to the store to buy magazines, light bulbs, and things like that, and we don't always have receipts. But it's not like we're using that money to buy Escalades or anything."

Petro also pointed to $12,800 in gifts to sports organizations, arguing that the contributions didn't further the station's charitable efforts.

"What he didn't say was that we gave most of that money to Beep Baseball," Loyd says. "Do you know what Beep Baseball is? It's a bunch of blind people, playing baseball! It wasn't like we were buying season tickets to Cavs games!"

Petro further questioned a $1,000 gift to the Akron Area Agency on Aging. "Many of our listeners are elderly," Loyd says. "They range in age from 60 to 90, and we do lots of special programming with that organization, from predatory-lending stuff to identity-theft awareness."

Petro then went on to cite the station for hiring WCRS board member Rick Atkins to run bingo games for $47,000 a year.

Loyd says that if the Attorney General had looked more closely, he would have noticed that WCRS paid Atkins to be a janitor; he ran bingo on the side, for free.

"Either way, we fired Rick two years ago," Loyd says. "I don't know what more they'd want us to do about him."

Despite the accusations, Petro still hasn't found WCRS guilty of anything.

Nevertheless, he denied WCRS a 2006 license to sell instant-bingo tickets, though it was still allowed to offer traditional bingo. The move was a death blow. Of the $400,000 a year the station earned from bingo, most of it came from instant bingo.

"All we want is to be able to operate as normal while they're investigating," Loyd says. "When they find something wrong, fine, take it away. But even murderers get due process of the law. What happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'?"

The station's bingo turnout quickly fell by a third. Now, says Loyd, "We can't pay our electric bill."

Loyd, Binkley, and executive director Marcia Jonke all donated their paychecks to keep the station going. But it still wasn't enough to cover $25,000 a month in operating costs. So last week, they decided to close shop.

A few days before the station's last transmission, the three employees shake hands with a few dedicated volunteers working their last days.

Fifty-year-old volunteer Jim Bunnell shows up from his day job to read his last edition of Scene. "I think it's a crock," he says of Petro's heavy-handedness. "This place does so much good."

Jonke, who has worked for WCRS since the day it went on the air, agrees. "I just think it's a shame that the blind community will be missing this," she says. "It's not fair, because we haven't done anything wrong."

But Petro apparently doesn't want blind people competing with the state's own gambling operation. When first elected attorney general, he gave the Ohio Lottery Commission -- charity bingo's rival -- responsibility for issuing bingo licenses. In less than a year, the Lottery Commission had raised the licensing fee from $200 to $5,000.

"He won't fry the bigger fish, because the bigger fish have money to fight back," Loyd says angrily. "We have nothing."

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