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In Largest Penalty to Date, FCC Fines Both Pirate Operator and Property Owner

FCC sends a strong message

The Federal Communications Commission attempted to send a strong message to the pirate operators of the world by penalizing an unlicensed radio operator with the largest fine to date — and saying that property owners permitting these pirate operations are now culpable, too.

The commission heaved a $144,344 fine against both the operator of an unlicensed station and the building owner where the equipment was housed, marking the first time the commission has attempted to make a property owner equally liable for operation of such a station.

These particular operators are no strangers to visits from FCC Enforcement Bureau staff. It was back in 2012 that investigators first ran into Fabrice Polynice, a programming provider, and Harold and Veronise Sido, who own property in North Miami where the station’s transmission equipment is located. Five years ago, the Miami Field Office received a complaint about a potential unauthorized station broadcasting on 90.1 MHz in the North Miami area, and after further research, the commission found that a pirate station was in operation.

The bureau warned all three that the unauthorized transmission of a radio broadcast is illegal, and ultimately seized transmission equipment from the Sido residence in 2012 and levied a $25,000 forfeiture order against Polynice in 2013.

According to the commission, Polynice continued to operate the pirate station from the Sido residence, with parties posting video of themselves in their pirate studio on social media. Operation continued on from there, with field agents finding on at least seven different occasions that the station was being operated from the Sido residence by Polynice. During the investigation it was discovered that while Polynice provided programming, the Sidos provided material support in the form of free use of their property, including the shed from which the program was broadcast, as well as electricity and internet connectivity necessary for operation of the transmitter and antenna.

The Miami area, along with Boston and New York, have generally proven to have the greatest concentration of pirate radio activities, as illustrated in this FCC map. According to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, three fourths of the last 2,000 enforcement actions can be attributed to five states: California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

At its September Open Meeting, commissioners used strong words to describe the actions of all three as dangerous and deliberate.

“I support taking a strong stand against pirate radio operators, including in this case where we have proposed the statutory maximum forfeiture [because this station] could disrupt emergency communications and result in harmful interference to nearby licensed stations,” Clyburn said during the meeting.

At the end of her statement, however, she turned the tables somewhat to question whether the FCC is doing enough to ensure underrepresented groups have a voice in the public radio arena.

“While there is absolutely no justification for pirate radio operation, the proliferation of these stations should spark the question: ‘Are there specific FCC policies that are incentivizing individuals to choose the route of operating an unlicensed broadcast radio station?’”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who generally withholds from making comments on Notices of Apparent Liability, made an exception; pirate radio operations are an area on which he has spent a considerable amount of time and energy, he said. “I appreciate the scope of this NAL in that it seeks to go after actual landlords housing the pirate station, although in this instance, the landlords seem to be more like active participants than just facilitators,” he said.

This issue is particularly timely in the wake of this year’s hurricane season, and these operators are flatly putting public safety at risk, O’Rielly said. “Allowing rogue individuals to potentially cause interference, effectively steal listeners and put legitimate broadcasters at risk for failing is antithetical to the commission’s purpose,” he said.

He also said that the fine limit of $144,000 is inadequate, particularly compared with fines for other violators — such as the $120 million that the FCC levied on a Miami resident for illegal robocalls. “That [$144,000 is] pennies in the bucket compared to what we’ve sought against other violators,” he said.

He also again pressed Congress to expand the scope of the commission’s authority to go after additional participants who are facilitating pirate radio operations.

Polynice and the Sidos have 30 days to respond, after which the commission will review the response and then may proceed to issue a final forfeiture order. If a final payment is not received within 30 days, the matter is referred to the Justice Department.