By Tom Willard Many in the deaf community are wondering what happened to Silent News. It has been nearly a year since the newspaper has appeared. The publishers have not told their subscribers or advertisers what is going on. The office has closed and the phones have been disconnected. Recently I saw an Internet article by Jamie Berke of about.com titled "Silent News Passes Away." You can see her article at: http://deafness.about.com/library/weekly/aa010803.htm I decided to write a response to Ms. Berke's article because I was editor of Silent News for five years and learned a lot about the newspaper's operations during this time. I thought I would share my letter with readers who may not have a chance to see the news on about.com. If anyone would like to respond, please feel free to contact me at tomwillard99 (at) aol.com. Dear Jamie Berke About.com Deafness Guide Thank you for writing about the "passing away" of Silent News. It was practically the only acknowledgement I have read anywhere about the newspaper's sudden and mysterious departure from the scene. Can you imagine if The New York Times went out of business and no one reported this news? It is a sad commentary on the deaf community that our leading newspaper could cease to exist with a bare minimum of response from the community. I read the cryptic message issued by Silent News in January 2003 and was not satisfied with this information. No reason was given for why the newspaper halted publication, no date was given for its supposed return, and no names were provided as sources of this information. The advertisers and subscribers who supported the paper all these years deserve better. I spoke with a few advertisers and they were in the dark like the rest of us. I saw a note on deafbase.net alleging that one advertiser gave $11,000 to Silent News and got nothing in return! I was editor of Silent News from 1991 to 1996. In my opinion, the problems started in July 1996 when the founders' daughter, Adele Wiggins, showed up in our office in Rochester with a lawyer and informed us that the office was closing immediately and reopening in New Jersey near her home. She had never been a part of the paper during the five years I served as editor, but with her parents planning to retire, she decided to have herself appointed as executive director. She had been an interpreter and I understand she could no longer do this kind of work due to carpal tunnel syndrome. I was abruptly fired as editor, despite doing a good job to improve the paper. When I joined, Silent News was a "Mom & Pop" operation run from the dining room table of Julius and Harriet Wiggins. By the time I left, the newspaper was computerized, had a professional office and was run an all-deaf staff of seven. Subscriptions increased from 8,000 to 12,000 during my tenure, and revenue grew from $200,000 to $500,000. During this time, we launched the local newsmagazine "Deaf Rochester" and the national "Job Bulletin," filled with deaf-related job announcements from all over the country. Adele Wiggins replaced the entire Rochester staff with new people and had a revolving door of editors. Betty Broecker lasted just one year. Considerable time then passed without an editor (it showed) before Trudy Suggs came on and did a marvelous job of upgrading the newspaper. Alas, she suddenly resigned, taking the sports editor and several writers with her. The Wiggins family then turned to the marketing director, Jonathan Kovacs, to serve as interim editor. It is Kovacs who has been the target of rumors about an alleged theft of money from Silent News. I was at the Deaf Expo in California last November and two people from New Jersey told me with strong assurance that the rumors were true. One said the theft totalled $35,000; the other said $65,000. The story was that Kovacs organized a Silent News-sponsored party at the Hard Rock Cafe during The Deaf Way II and then pocketed the admission fees; leaving Silent News on the hook and unable to pay the restaurant, much less continue to pay for printing and postage fees. Later that same day, I spotted Mr. Kovacs himself roaming the aisles. I flagged him down and asked him about these rumors. He categorically denied the allegations and said that in fact Silent News still owed him money for his work. He referred further questions to Adele Wiggins. In a recent newspaper interview, Kovacs addressed the matter and claimed that he was the sponsor of the Hard Rock Cafe event, not Silent News. So who is telling the truth? It is hard to say, but if Kovacs did in fact steal money from the newspaper, I think Silent News would have filed a lawsuit against him, and we have heard of no such action taking place. Perhaps Kovacs was used as a scapegoat to cover up the financial misdeeds of Silent News management. It is interesting to consider the legal status of Silent News. The newspaper was founded in 1969 as a private business with several "shareholders" who put up the money to get things started. In the early 1970s the Wigginses bought out these partners and became sole owners, but the paper struggled financially. In 1975, Silent News converted from a private business to a 501(c)(3) non-profit, tax-exempt organization. This allowed Silent News to seek out grants, avoid taxes and get lower fees on booth rentals, advertising and other services. I saw evidence that they were using the organization's funds to pay their own personal expenses, including car payments, and I was dismayed when they made a deal with a travel agency to place full-page ads in Silent News every month in exchange for personal travel that they used for their own benefit, including several cruises. Many times, Julius and Harriet talked to me about retiring and selling the business. Every time, I expressed my belief that a non-profit organization could not be "sold," but they ignored me and never stopped calling themselves the "owners." The board of directors consisted only of Julius and Harriet and their three hearing children. I thought it was odd and improper for a non-profit agency's board to consist only of five people from the same family. This concerned all of us on the staff, and we met with a lawyer to discuss the matter. We were told to be patient and wait for them to retire. If we went to the IRS with our concerns, it could mark the end of the newspaper and we didn't want that to happen. One day Harriet told me that they had talked with a lawyer about selling the business and learned that they would need to convert back to private ownership and pay around 20 years of back taxes. She was shocked and disappointed. Shortly thereafter, we were called to a meeting about their retirement. The staff looked forward to continuing to run the newspaper from Rochester with minimal involvement from the Wiggins. Instead, Adele showed up for the meeting with a lawyer and accountant and took over the organization in a coup d'état. She immediately started packing up our office and within a week, Silent News was gone from Rochester. Soon the finances began to plummet, and according to IRS tax returns, Julius Wiggins was soon forced to make a personal loan of around $100,000 to keep the paper going. Amazingly enough, they recently found a way to convert the paper back to private ownership (note their domain name went from silentnews.org to silentnews.com) and shortly therea after began to have severe financial problems again, with no ability to seek out grants to get them over the hard times. It is important for people to understand the truth about what happened with Silent News. In my opinion, the paper was done in by the greed of the Wiggins family, who tried to have the best of both worlds ... private ownership and non-profit status at the same time. Toward the end of the Rochester era of Silent News, Harriet was paying herself $69,000 a year as part-time accountant and Julius was getting around $48,000 despite doing practically no work on the newspaper. Harriet justified these salaries by saying that for many years they worked for almost nothing. That is fine in a private business, but not acceptable in a non-profit organization. Left to his own devices, I am almost positive that Julius Wiggins would have let Silent News remain in Rochester to continue all the good work we were doing. Instead, I feel that he was betrayed by his wife and daughter, who were unable to make the transition gracefully. I find it very sad that Julius Wiggins passed away and was followed to the grave so soon thereafter by the newspaper to which he devoted his life.