Current, a news outlet covering public media, has a thorough report out on the tangled power struggle at the Arkansas Education Television Network:
The Arkansas Educational Television Commission is threatening to sever its relationship with the AETN Foundation unless the fundraising group reinstates the network’s executive director as foundation CEO.
The standoff follows months of friction between the sibling organizations over who will pay for AETN Executive Director Courtney Pledger’s push to refresh the network’s content strategy.
Pledger was named AETN director by Governor Hutchinson in March 2017. Pledger, formerly a film and TV producer and director, had done a five-year stint as director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival before being tapped to head AETN. Among changes implemented by Pledger: broadcasting state high school championship games in football and basketball and livestream coverage of the legislature, board and commission meetings, and other government activities.
Pledger’s position leading AETN originally put her in charge of AETN itself as well as the AETN Foundation, the public television network’s nonprofit fundraising partner.
Trouble began brewing this January in a dispute over who would pay for a $36,000 contract with Team Raney, led by the documentary filmmaker Rachel Raney, which was hired by Pledger as a consultant on content development. Pledger wanted to use foundation money to pay for the contract, which she entered into without approval from the foundation board. Mona Dixon, the foundation’s development director, raised concerns, first to Pledger and then directly to the board, asking for Whistleblower protection, when Pledger declined to follow her recommendation that she seek board approval.
In December, the board unanimously rejected the contract, stating that the agreement violated state procurement practices, that content was the responsibility of the state agency rather than the foundation, and that Pledger had improperly entered into the contract without board approval. Despite the board’s decision, on January 13, Pledger approved a payment of $13,750 to Team Raney by the foundation. Dixon informed the board, which eventually approved the contract using a capital planning fund, the solution that Dixon says she had initially suggested to Pledger when the idea for the contract first came up last year.
On Feb. 12, Pledger fired Dixon, who had worked for AETN for more than 30 years. Dixon then wrote a letter to the foundation board appealing her termination (the letter was published by Arkansas Business in its report last month breaking news of the conflict). The board responded by removing Pledger as CEO of the foundation.
The AETN commission, meanwhile, made up of eight commissioners appointed by the governor, is backing Pledger, and is now demanding that the board reinstate Pledger as CEO. And they have additional demands as well, Current reports:
Eight commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution voicing support for Pledger during an emergency meeting March 27.
In the resolution, the commission also threatened to terminate its contract with the fundraising foundation unless Pledger is reinstated as CEO and changes are made to its board bylaws. The commission called for instituting term limits for board members and adding two new foundation board members “to provide fresh perspective and ideas.”
“Recent actions of the current foundation board are contrary to the vision and direction of AETN and in conflict with the purpose for which the foundation was created” in 1984, the commission resolution said. “The current working relationship between the commission and the foundation has reached an untenable point.”
All of this is happening in the shadow of the news of an unrelated legislative audit that found improper practices at AETN under Pledger’s watch. Here’s Arkansas Business on what state auditors found:
AETN’s financial report for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018, presented to the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, included several findings that the network strayed from state procurement law and ran afoul of guidelines for keeping records on Pledger’s use of a state-owned vehicle.
The state requires keeping a written vehicle use log, but “because a vehicle use log was not maintained, we could not determine an accurate amount of reimbursement due for personal use of the vehicle,” state auditors wrote. Fuel receipts, appointment calendars and other documents suggested that Pledger owed the agency a reimbursement of at least $2,864.
And more from Current:
Those issues included problems with a vendor contract for State of the Art, an hourlong documentary premiering April 26 on PBS. It tells the stories of seven diverse and little-known artists from across the country who were part of an exhibition in Bentonville, Ark. Auditors said AETN “did not follow state procurement law” by handling vendor payments for the program through the foundation instead of the state Department of Finance and Administration.
“At no time did we wish to run afoul of state processes,” the network said in response to the audit. “Given time constraints, our aim was efficiency in securing this opportunity for Arkansas. In the future we will carefully coordinate with the advice and approval” of the Department of Finance and Administration, the network said.
The audit also found that AETN did not issue competitive bids for four vendors’ charges that totaled $157,928, engaged services of a special counsel without authorization from the governor and paid two vendors $10,000 for employee training but did not properly document that the training was completed.
Current’s story quotes at length from an anonymous letter by “concerned employees” at AETN. The letter was addressed to the foundation board, the commission and the public, and was first reported on by Arkansas Business last month. Some samples:
“When Courtney Pledger came onboard, lots of staff were determined to be as positive as possible,” the employees’ letter said. It went on to describe how staff became “tense and wary” during her first year on the job, due in part to “a number of firings or forced retirements.” …
The employees’ letter said that staff believe that Pledger “is attempting to use the restricted accounts of the foundation for unauthorized purposes.” It also said staff viewed Dixon’s termination as retaliation for challenging the executive director on the payment.
“It is important to remember that the foundation and the state are separate entities for a reason … to make a clear break between state monies and private donor funds,” the employees’ letter said. “Both sides have worked hard to achieve this goal. But since Courtney has come to us, she has caused a breach of trust between the two groups that have worked in successful harmony for decades.”
The employees’ letter notes that legislative auditors identified several problems with AETN for the first time in years, pointing to Pledger’s “outright disregard for state regulations” for the unfavorable review of the network’s accounting and procurement practices.