UPDATED at 9 a.m. with Conners' new Twitter account, planned radio appearances, other details.
KMOV (Channel 4) fired Larry Conners after a social-media controversy, prompting St. Louis' longest-tenured anchorman to defend his claim that IRS "pressure" followed his 2012 interview of President Barack Obama.
Freed from a KMOV gag-order Wednesday, Conners said his statements on Facebook were simply questions about the possibility of an Internal Revenue Service vendetta in the wake of national stories about the agency.
"I never said that's what happened, and I'm still not saying it," Conners said. "I'm only asking that question."
Conners also said a televised statement he made about the situation last week — which he conceded damaged his position — was forced on him to read "as-is."
KMOV announced Conners' firing with a statement posted about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday on its website.
"We regret to announce that Larry Conners is no longer a KMOV news reporter," president and general manager Mark Pimentel said in the statement.
Conners, 66, spent 37 years in St. Louis television — the last 27 as an anchor at KMOV — and won numerous local Emmy Awards.
His firing comes after a series of events that began when Conners implied in the May 13 Facebook post that he may have been targeted by the IRS after interviewing President Barack Obama in 2012. In that interview, Conners questioned Obama's travel expenditures.
The IRS claims Conners and his wife, Janet L. Conners, owe more than $85,000 from 2008, 2009 and 2010. Larry Conners said he has had a tax accountant prepare his statements for years and that he and his wife had paid taxes for 2008-2010, but the IRS disagreed with the Conners over some deductions. He was on a payment plan with the IRS, he said, but after the Obama interview, the IRS cancelled the plan. In September a lien was placed on their Clayton home. The IRS declined to comment.
Conners' Facebook implication that he may have been targeted by the IRS came as political controversy swirled around the agency's targeting of conservative groups that were applying for nonprofit status. The Justice Department has launched a criminal probe into IRS practices, saying it is looking into potential civil rights violations, and the controversy has been the subject of pointed questioning in Congressional hearings.
Pimentel said Conners' dismissal was necessary because his comments put the station in a difficult position when reporting on IRS stories.
"The current IRS controversy is of serious importance for journalists to report," Pimentel said. "And it becomes very difficult for us to produce a newscast where you have someone (reporting IRS-related news) who could at least seem to be biased."
Pimentel also said Conners' actions would have caused problems if he had been called on to report on the Obama administration.
"Larry is certainly entitled to his opinion, but taking a personal political position on one of the station’s Facebook pages creates an appearance of bias that is inconsistent with important journalistic standards," Pimentel's statement said.
Pimentel said he informed KMOV staff of Conners' firing shortly before releasing the statement.
"Larry is a respected journalist. A lot of people here, they worked side-by-side with him on elections and breaking stories and severe weather," Pimentel said. "This is not a happy day here."
'THE IRS HAS BEEN PRESSURING ME'
In the Facebook post Conners penned on May 13, he says: "I don’t accept 'conspiracy theories,' but I do know that almost immediately after the interview, the IRS started hammering me. ... Can I prove it? At this time, no. But it is a fact that since that April 2012 interview … the IRS has been pressuring me."
On Wednesday, Conners explained he was not challenging the IRS claims that he owed money. He said he had worked out a monthly payment plan that began in the summer of 2011.
"I pay my taxes, just like any other taxpayer," Conners said."I made payments every month."
Even after the IRS notified him it was cancelling the payment plan, Conners continued to make a monthly payment.
"I didn't want them to come back and say I wasn't paying," he said. "And we tried to work out a new payment plan, but the IRS wouldn't work with me."
He said he stopped the payments in January, on the advice of a tax attorney, because a payment plan wasn't in place.
Conners maintains he did not consider that the IRS could be exacting some vendetta because of the Obama interview until after national stories about the IRS broke. He has been encouraged to write "personal observations of news events" and decided to write a Facebook post about his IRS problems, he said.
Media attention focused on Conners' Facebook post. The next day, Conners read a statement on KMOV’s 5 p.m. newscast. In the statement, Conners appears to back off his initial claim of IRS interference and reveals that his problems with the IRS date to 2008, something he didn't say in the Facebook post.
"To be fair, I should disclose that my issues with the IRS preceded that interview (with Obama) by several years," Conners said in the statement.
Conners concluded the statement by saying he respects the importance of journalists keeping personal issues separate from professional ones. "Those lines might have been unintentionally crossed by my post," he said.
Conners says now that he would have liked to have given more context to viewers, but was told he couldn't edit or add to the statement given to him to read on the air. He also was prohibited from telling his side of the story, he said.
"I thought I was being a good employee, so I held my tongue," he said.
Conners came to St. Louis in 1976 as an investigative reporter for KMOV. He moved to KTVI (Channel 2) to become an anchor in 1979, and then rejoined KMOV as an anchor in 1986.
But Conners has been taking hits recently at KMOV, which replaced him in late April with former sportscaster Steve Savard (alongside Sharon Reed) on the marquee 10 p.m. newscast. Conners, who recently signed a new two-year contract, kept the 6 p.m. anchor job.
"We had planned on Larry Conners to be here," Pimentel said.
Now, Pimentel said, Savard will get that 6 p.m. spot, too, "at least for the time being."
Conners had little to say about his future plans, but on Wednesday created a new Twitter account, @LarryConnersUSA. There he describes himself as a "Texan, Marine, gun owner, pilot, Harley Rider, poker player" and says "these views are my 1st Amendment Rights."
He used the account to announce radio appearances Thursday on KYKY-FM (Y98), KMOX and Tea Partier Dana Loesch's show at 12:30 on KFTK NewsTalk 97.1.