Is Jilda Unruh Getting Stiffed?

After Channel 10's reporter angered UTD's Pat Tornillo, her education stories stopped appearing

Garwood, thrilled to be called while on Labor Day vacation, answers: "If I responded every time someone threatens my license, that's all I'd be doing. We don't wither under threats, just like you guys don't. They think our coverage is biased, but it's not inaccurate."

Without seeing the UTD's planned FCC complaint, it's hard to evaluate how effective it's likely to be. Historically, successful challenges to station licenses are uncommon. Attorney Spencer, known locally for his role on the Bush/Cheney legal team during the 2000 vote-count debacle, admits the unusual case is likely to be "a big uphill battle," but if the union can prove that Channel 10 has engaged in egregious behavior over a long period of time, it may convince the FCC. The last time WPLG's license was seriously challenged was in 1973, when Richard Nixon and cronies were looking for a way to twist the nipples of the Washington Post by pressuring the FCC to award the licenses of Post-owned television stations to other operators. One of those stations was WPLG (the call letters come from former Post owner Philip L. Graham). Unfortunately for Nixon, the effort failed, and WPLG has remained a Post-Newsweek vehicle.

Asked whether there's a connection between UTD's threats to challenge the license or, as implied in Tornillo's letter, file a lawsuit and Unruh's long dry spell on education stories, Garwood emits a deep chuckle. "It has nothing to do with that," he maintains. "We don't run stories just to do them. When we have something, we go with it. Jilda's working on some things and they will be coming out." Then, sensing the inherent drama in the situation, Garwood adds conspiratorially, "Stay tuned, there will be more to come."

Mark Poutenis

A virtual guarantee that the highly entertaining clash between two of this town's titans will continue. The union has not hidden its enmity toward Unruh. After several of her reports, UTD fired back on its Website, or in the pages of its monthly newsletter to members (Katz produces both). After Unruh's May story, Katz wrote a column titled "Channel 10 makes up their news (again)." In the piece, she crows about the station's ratings slide in recent years, and suggests it may have something to do with Unruh's "yellow journalism" and Channel 10's obvious lack of a "competent, honest, and ethical editor" to rein her in.

Unruh's May report on the union's "financial dealings" focused on financial statements, and county and state records detailing Tornillo's princely salary ($225,429, as mentioned above, plus a $17,700 allowance, and the home and grounds provided by the union). Unruh included UTD's explanation that Tornillo leases the home from the union and his paycheck is docked $2700 a month, but she cast doubt on it by saying that the information doesn't appear anywhere on state financial disclosure forms. The report also revealed that ten UTD executives make more than $100,000 a year, plus allowances and, for some, allegedly interest-free loans.

The most fascinating aspect of the report, however, was watching the two old pros going at it -- the 46-year-old blond "Pitbull in Pumps" (a nickname she picked up from an old producer at a station in Tulsa) cornering the cagey 76-year-old union bear with her questions. Unruh: "Why don't you explain [the lease on the home] to us?" Tornillo: "Why do I have to explain it to you? Why do I have to explain it to Jilda Unruh?" The story ended with an enraged Tornillo fairly spluttering. "We're going to challenge you from here on every time," he threatened. "Every time you open your mouth!"

Unruh is no stranger to controversy. Last year lobbyist Ric Sisser (a close ally of Tornillo) filed a lawsuit and won a temporary restraining order against Unruh after she barged into his hospital room, where he was being treated for congestive heart failure. She had done so because he had ducked her attempts for weeks to ask him about his role in school land and health-care contracts.

Then last summer, Unruh's former fiancé, school computer specialist Robert Seitz, made news when he flipped out after she broke off their relationship. According to Herald reports, Seitz allegedly engaged in stalking-type behavior, attempted to force a ring on her finger at her office, and faked a Pakistani accent during phone calls to her apartment.

In other cases, Unruh's barnstorming approach has had positive results. Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler resigned March 14 from her part-time job at the school district after Unruh reported in February that she was not actually working the hours she had claimed on her time sheets. Unruh and a camera crew surreptitiously followed Carey-Shuler for two weeks, documenting her activities, which didn't appear to have anything to do with her job in the school district's alternative-education division. New Times later revealed that the county's ethics commission and possibly the State Attorney's Office were investigating the commissioner. Carey-Shuler seems to confirm as much in a lamenting letter sent March 13 to superintendent Merrett Stierheim. "I find it shocking, repulsive and, quite frankly, unbelievable that I am being investigated for doing my job, on the allegations of a news reporter who stalked me for 14 days." Stierheim accepted her subsequent resignation "with regret."

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