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Tennessee Broadcaster Won’t Lose His License Despite Past Felony Conviction

Armstrong owns WJBE, the only Black-owned radio station in Knoxville

A Tennessee radio station owner convicted of a felony for filing a false tax return will not lose his broadcast license.   

Joe Armstrong, a former Tennessee legislator, was convicted by a jury in 2016 of making a false statement on his taxes. That triggered a license revocation process in March 2022 when the FCC put his request for license renewal up for review through the commission’s administrative law process. The Enforcement Bureau had urged license revocation.

Armstrong’s Arm & Rage Inc. has held the license for WJBE(AM) in Knoxville, Tenn., since 2013. According to the FCC, Armstrong was sentenced in 2017 to three years’ probation and six months of house arrest. He was also ordered to pay nearly $100,000 in restitution to the federal government along with a $40,000 fine.

The former elected official was accused of purchasing state cigarette stamps in 2007 and later selling them — after the state legislature increased the cigarette tax stamp rate — for a profit totaling about $330,000. Armstrong was an elected representative at the time, but Tennessee state law didn’t prevent him from profiting from the sale of the stamps, according to the FCC.

However, the commission says Armstrong’s 2008 federal tax return didn’t reflect the profit he made on the sale of the tax stamps, leading to a criminal trial and his subsequent conviction of signing a false tax return. He was acquitted of the more serious crime of defrauding the federal government.   

The FCC Media Bureau says Arm & Rage reported Armstrong’s conviction to the commission on April 14, 2017, but should have reported it earlier. The licensee also admitted it failed to submit its biennial ownership reports as required in its application to renew filed in March 2020. The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau also alleges Arm & Rage committed additional reporting violations. 

Misconduct outside of FCC matters has always been a part of the commission assessment of a licensee’s character. FCC policies are designed to assess “the citizenship, character and financial, technical and other qualifications of applicants,” according to the FCC. It continues: “Any adjudicated felony committed by a principal of a licensee (will) be considered in making a character determination.”

In Armstrong’s case, Federal Communications Commission Administrative Law Judge Jane Hinckley Halprin heard arguments from the Enforcement Bureau, which argued that the felony of which Armstrong was convicted is rooted in “criminally dishonest conduct.” Therefore he, and, by extension, Arm & Rage, no longer possess the requisite character to remain a commission licensee.

Armstrong, the sole member of Arm & Rage, LLC, has “not expressed remorse and seems unwilling to accept responsibility publicly” for his crime, according to the FCC.

Additionally, the FCC argued that, in light of the licensee’s numerous FCC rule violations, the station cannot be said to have a good record of FCC compliance. In all, the Enforcement Bureau totaled 22 known violations of the commission’s reporting rules.

However, attorneys for Arm & Rage responded that Armstrong’s single felony, which was committed almost 15 years ago — before Arm & Rage acquired the license for WJBE(AM) — did not negatively affect its or Armstrong’s qualifications to continue to hold a commission license. 

The crime, the licensee argues, was a low-level felony that was not violent, did not involve significant planning, was of limited duration, did not include preying on others, did not implicate Armstrong’s political office and did not result in incarceration, according to the FCC.

Throughout the proceeding, the Enforcement Bureau argued that limitations on discovery in the case deprived it of the opportunity to investigate further as to whether Armstrong has been involved in other wrongdoing since his criminal conviction, according to the FCC document.

Ultimately, the FCC administrative law judge last week found Armstrong’s conviction and character attributes did not disqualify him as a licensee. The judge contends the Enforcement Bureau did not satisfy its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the felony of which Joseph Armstrong was convicted renders him, and, by extension, Arm & Rage, LLC, unfit to be a commission licensee. 

The presiding judge wrote: “The evidence and arguments presented in this case, however, persuade the presiding judge, like the trial court, that Mr. Armstrong’s crime, while willful, was an isolated occurrence that does not suggest a likelihood of future violations.” 

WJBE is the only Black-owned radio station in Knoxville, according to Arm & Rage. The licensee says the call letters are an homage to entertainer James Brown, who once owned a radio station with the same call sign (James Brown Enterprises) in Knoxville.

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