After pulling Uhuru radio funding, Pinellas poised to block more money

The Pinellas County Commission is set to again deny funding to a nonprofit connected to the embattled Uhuru Movement, despite a recommendation in its favor.
The Uhuru House, in St. Petersburg, pictured in April. After revoking funding promised to 96.3 WBPU-FM earlier this year, the Pinellas County Commission is again set to deny funding to the radio station's parent nonprofit, despite the recommendation of the Pinellas Community Foundation.
The Uhuru House, in St. Petersburg, pictured in April. After revoking funding promised to 96.3 WBPU-FM earlier this year, the Pinellas County Commission is again set to deny funding to the radio station's parent nonprofit, despite the recommendation of the Pinellas Community Foundation. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published June 9|Updated June 9

Months after it pulled funding it had promised to a Black radio station connected to an embattled political group, the Pinellas County Commission is again poised to withhold money from the station’s parent nonprofit.

Commissioners will vote Tuesday on how to spend $10.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding designated for local nonprofits. The Pinellas Community Foundation, which the county hired to vet and rank applications for the funding, said the African People’s Education and Defense Fund should get about $67,000 for a backup generator system at its headquarters on 18th Avenue South in St. Petersburg, better known as the Uhuru House.

But county staff have recommended that the county nix that funding. It’s the only item on the list, which includes funding for a dozen nonprofits’ capital projects, that staff suggested pulling.

In a memo to commissioners, county staff wrote that the Education and Defense Fund’s proposal “will not directly counteract the effects of COVID-19.” The nonprofit’s lawyer, Pinellas attorney Luke Lirot, said he sees that rationale as a smokescreen, and that he believes the county’s move is politically motivated.

At the core of the conflict is the Education and Defense Fund’s association with the Uhuru Movement, the African Socialist group with deep roots in St. Petersburg. Last year, FBI agents raided the Uhuru House as part of a probe into the Uhuru Movement’s alleged connections to a Russian national accused of working with U.S. groups to spread pro-Russia propaganda and interfere with elections. Earlier this year, four current and former Uhuru members were indicted on federal charges.

“(To) base a decision on innuendo or guilt by association ... just didn’t seem fair,” Lirot said.

While the Uhuru House has long served as a headquarters for the political group, it’s also home to a commercial kitchen, health care events and the radio station, aspects of which are projects of the Education and Defense Fund. The fund and the political organization are separate entities, and Lirot noted in a letter to county commissioners Wednesday that the federal case doesn’t involve the fund or its board or staff.

According to the Education and Defense Fund’s application for the federal dollars, it had planned to buy a backup generator before the pandemic caused donations to plummet and forced it to close its kitchen and event space, which drive much of its income. The generator would ensure that its radio station, 96.3 WBPU-FM, also known as Black Power 96, is able to keep broadcasting emergency alerts during a storm, and that food in its commercial refrigerators and freezers isn’t lost in a power outage.

In February, the County Commission voted to revoke $36,000 slated to go to the station. The move to pull the money, which commissioners had approved months earlier as part of an earlier round of Rescue Plan funding, came after Commissioner Chris Latvala complained of the station’s association with the Uhurus.

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Latvala later said that he didn’t consider a community radio station to be a good use of the money, and that the county should “prioritize people over products and things.”

Lirot said this logic doesn’t hold because only capital projects are eligible for the Rescue Plan funding. And the county’s reasoning in striking the nonprofit from the latest round of funding didn’t make sense either, he said: Other applicants pointed to lost income and fundraising opportunities as evidence of how the pandemic hurt them.

The Pinellas Community Foundation gave high scores to both of the Education and Defense Fund’s requests. The earlier application for radio equipment ranked fourth out of 55 for smaller projects, and the generator application ranked fourth out of 79 for costlier projects.

County staff initially recommended striking two other projects from the funding list, one for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg and another for Evara Health, a group of health centers focused on underserved communities. During a County Commission work session on Thursday, though, Assistant County Administrator Kevin Knutson said staff was withdrawing its recommendations, putting those two projects back on the list.

“The analysis we did was not as complete as we’d like it to be,” Knutson said. He did not address the generator project.

In February, WBPU supporters called the move to pull funds an attack on free speech and said they were considering legal action. Lirot said he’s so far only been asked to “keep an eye on things,” and to send the letter that urged commissioners to approve the funding. But litigation is always possible “if people feel that they’ve been discriminated against,” and he also sees it as a free speech issue. The county needs to determine funding based on the merits of the project, he said, not organizations’ political beliefs.

“The fact that we protect those ideas is what really makes this country worth living in,” he said. “Without the First Amendment, we might as well go join the Russian army.”