FCC Enforcement: Anti-Pirate "Muscle" Now Slower than Molasses

I’ve updated the Enforcement Action Database this week, due to some news out of the FCC regarding its enforcement efforts against unlicensed broadcasting, all of which show little change to the wimpish status quo.
The agency tells Radio World that its plan to close 11 field offices will commence in January of next year. More than 40 field-agent positions will be cut, leaving just 13 offices remaining across the country, with a combined staff of three dozen. These will be backstopped by two “Tiger Teams” staged in Colorado and Maryland, to be dispatched to areas where an “interference crisis” exists within 24 hours.
However, what will those boots on the ground actually do when they get there? If the enforcement protocol itself does not change, the answer will be very little. Once need only look at the three most recent Notices of Apparent Liability issued by the Enforcement Bureau against pirate broadcasters in the last few weeks: touted mightily by the industry trades, a closer look shows a curious pattern of disengagement.
1. Kedner Maxime, Ft. Lauderdale, FL ($15,000): Mr. Maxime first appeared on the FCC’s radar in July of 2015 after it received a complaint that an unlicensed station in the area was generating a spurious emission “on a frequency assigned to U.S. military aeronautical operations.” FCC field staff visited the station “at a church building” four times that month, and on the last visit they spoke directly with Mr. Maxime who agreed to shut off and surrender his transmitter.
Four months later, field agents received word that a pirate station was operating on a different frequency from a mixed-use building in the city. Surprise: Kedner Maxime had rented two units in the building and placed an antenna on the roof. Mr. Maxime (and his wife) got another talking-to and that was that…
…until this month, when the FCC slapped Maxime with a $15,000 Notice of Apparent Liability. This is expected to be formalized as a forfeiture, but perhaps it’ll take another eight months?
2. Vilnord Simon, North Miami, FL ($15,000): Mr. Simon’s been dancing with the FCC since last decade, first noted in October of 2008 for operating a Haitian evangelical pirate station from an apartment building. According to the agency itself, Simon shut down the transmitter when initially confronted, but “resumed operation from the same property several months later.” Yet the FCC didn’t follow up on the case until January of 2015.
Why the multi-year gap in enforcement here? The Enforcement Bureau doesn’t say, but it does detail the legwork it’s put into the case over the last year and a half, including gathering property records and building a file of Mr. Simon’s online presence.
3. Jose Luis Gerez, Queens, NY ($10,000): Another drawn-out saga, Gerez was first noticed by the FCC in July of 2013 for broadcasting without a license from an apartment building. In this case, field agents didn’t initially attempt to warn or prosecute Mr. Gerez directly, but rather the owners of the property at which the station was based.
Gerez subsequently dismantled the station and moved to another location in Queens, where he operated with impunity for more than two years, until the federales came knocking again in September 2015. Again, the FCC went after the building owner, never formally identifying the station operator himself, and again Mr. Gerez dismantled the station and moved on to a new location.
That worked fine until February of this year, when the FCC got another complaint about Gerez and tracked the station down yet again. But, as in all other instances, field agents went after the property owner and not Gerez himself. This allowed him to strike the station and move it to a fourth location. Apparently, this fourth time was the charm, because after making audio recordings of the station’s programming the agency issued a $10,000 NAL.
What’s doubly interesting in this case is that, despite the FCC’s assertion that Mr. Gerez’s “deliberate disregard of the Commission’s warning warrants a significant penalty” and playing cat-and-mouse with him for more than three years, he was hit with just a base forfeiture (which remains to be formalized). This seems to run counter to enforcement trends of the last few years, which have seen proposed and actual forfeitures increase from the base $10K to anywhere between $15-25,000.
Of course, the agency’s ability to actually convert these forfeitures into actual penalties that can be collected remains abysmal, and there’s always the possiblity that those dinged will simply ignore them or claim poverty — forcing the agency to either go after them in civil court (highly unlikely as the resources don’t exist for that) or reduce any forfeiture down to a level that ceases to function as a meaningful deterrent.
Incidentally, these are the only Notices of Apparent Liability the FCC has issued all year — and all on cases that have been on the agency’s books for quite some time (in one case, eight years). With the decimation of its field footprint imminent, there’s little hope that the Enforcement Bureau will ever get a grip on the “pirate problem,” much less be able to properly quantify and contextualize it.
Even so, you can expect FCC Commissioners to tout these “accomplishments” on this front using dubious statistics if called again to Capitol Hill or queried by the industry trades about this issue, as field agents get further demoralized and resort, in many respects, to simply phoning it in.