The bitter conflict that led to the departure of the top two executives at Wichita, Kan., public TV station KPTS in 1996 has not yet been put to rest.
A leader of the staff rebellion, Candyce P. (Candy) Hoop, and her onetime assistant, Som P. Chanthabouly, filed suits in federal court May 7, , charging that the station fired them in retribution for expressing workplace grievances three years ago.
Though Kansas law allows plaintiffs to specify only damages “in excess of $75,000” in such lawsuits, the two former KPTS staffers are actually going for more than $1 million apiece, said one of their attorneys, Frank Kamas.
Gloria Flentje, attorney for the station, gave the boilerplate response: “The station believes the cases are without merit and will defend itself vigorously.”
The suits name not only KPTS but also the ousted longtime managers, interim and current presidents, and past and present board chairmen.
While current President Don Checots has pictured KPTS as a station that is bettering itself and getting on with its business, Hoop and Chathabouly said the board and Checots perpetuated hard feelings.
Hoop, formerly the station’s underwriting salesperson, was the most vocal of the 17 full-time staff members (out of 24 total) who in 1996 asked the KPTS Board to alleviate the “hostile atmosphere” created by Vice President Jim Lewis and defended by President Zoel Parenteau. The local press reported allegations of abusive behavior by Lewis and quoted a staff petition citing “patterns of relentless nastiness, intimidation and obscenities” [earlier articles]. Within six weeks Lewis quit and Parenteau took early retirement.
In the view of interim President Paul Longhofer, it was Hoop who kept the bitterness alive. In his January 1997 employee evaluation of Hoop he said she “appears to have so much anger that she cannot let it drop.” The plaintiffs allege that management branded Hoop as a “troublemaker.”
Checots, who has been KPTS president since January 1997, was travelling and not available for comment on the suit. But he did talk with Current last year, while Hoop and Chanthabouly were pursuing Kansas Human Rights Commission complaints against KPTS. In January 1999 an investigation by the commission found there was probable cause for complaint, permitting them to file suit.
Checots said in 1998 he was shocked when he read what had happened between Lewis and Parenteau and their staff. “It was totally uncalled for,” he said, “probably on both sides.” He said he’d keep employees who make “a positive impact” on the station’s services. “It has nothing to do with retaliation.”
Checots noted earlier that KPTS was making “probably 75 cents per viewer” from underwriting–Hoop’s department–while similar stations make $2 per viewer.
But Kamas contends that the KPBS Board hired Checots with the understanding that he would “get rid of certain people.” In February 1997 he announced he would eliminate the position of Carl Chance, the production v.p., who signed the original letter to board Chair Norma Tucker in 1996. Chance was fired and escorted from the building in April 1997, Chanthabouly wrote in her human rights complaint. Checots eliminated Hoop’s department in August 1997, and Hoop was escorted from the building. In September the station eliminated Chanthabouly’s job, she wrote. “I then left before they could escort me out of the building.”
In 1999, the FCC Mass Media Bureau denied the two former employees’ objections and granted the renewal of KPTS’s license.