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Consulting Payment, Veteran COO’s Firing Open Rift Between AETN and Foundation

5 min read

Questions about payment practices and the subsequent firing of a three-decade employee have jolted the Conway headquarters of the Arkansas Educational Television Network and its nonprofit partner and fundraiser, the AETN Foundation.

The fallout led to AETN Executive Director Courtney Pledger’s removal as CEO of the foundation — traditionally the network chief has also overseen the foundation — even as a largely unrelated legislative audit highlighted improper fiscal practices. The network and Pledger, an appointee of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, have vowed to correct those practices.

As executive director and CEO of both the network and the foundation, Pledger oversaw a disputed payment in a $36,000 content consulting contract, and also directed the dismissal of AETN Foundation COO and Director of Development Mona Dixon last month. Over 32-plus years, Dixon had become a well-known name in Arkansas public broadcasting, and she is appealing her firing.

Pledger, asked by Arkansas Business about her removal as foundation CEO by its board, said, “there have been bylaw changes; it’s all steeped in a personnel issue, and I really can’t get into details.”

The contract at issue was with Team Raney, led by Rachel Raney, a documentary filmmaker and North Carolina public media executive whom Pledger engaged to help AETN rethink its content development process.

Dixon, who was fired on Feb. 12, wrote in a Feb. 26 email to foundation board chair Lynne Rich that her “termination without cause leads me to believe that it is in retaliation for me bringing information to the Foundation Board about the Team Raney contract.”

More: Read Dixon’s full email to Rich about Dixon’s advice to Pledger regarding the contract.

Minutes of the last two board meetings were not readily available, and two foundation board members declined to answer questions. One referred questions to Rich, who didn’t immediately respond to phone and email messages.

Dixon, who feared for her job last year after helping Rich look into the Raney contract, invoked the AETN Foundation’s whistleblower policy in a meeting with Rich in November, and her push to get her job back has reverberated. The AETN Commission, a state panel of overseers appointed by the governor, announced a conference call meeting for March 1, then abruptly canceled it. The committee has a regular quarterly meeting at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Little Rock, and the foundation topic might come up, Pledger said.

Who Gets the Bill?

The conflict ultimately came down to whether AETN would pay for the Raney contract as a state agency, or whether the bill would go to the AETN Foundation.

Foundation accounting policies complicated Pledger’s plan to pay Team Raney with foundation money rather than AETN agency money, Dixon wrote in the email, so she suggested that Pledger ask the foundation board for approval.

“Ms. Pledger did not follow my recommendation and entered into the contract by reallocating dollars that were part of the AETN Foundation Programming Grant,” Dixon wrote. “This put us in violation of our AETN Foundation Cash Flow Policy and the budget the board approved for fiscal year 2019.”

Rachel Raney, previously honored for her filmmaking at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (where Pledger held her last executive director’s job), was hired for her content-creation coaching. As director of national productions and UNC-TV original content in Raleigh-Durham, Raney aligned with Pledger’s vision for creating more engaging locally produced content for Arkansas’ educational TV stations, as well as regional and national collaborations.

But questions about how Team Raney would be paid bubbled up at a Dec. 13 meeting where the foundation board “voted unanimously that the Team Raney contract should not be a Foundation contract,” Dixon wrote. “The Board instructed the staff that the contract should be canceled immediately and handled by the state.”

But in January, Pledger approved a payment of $13,750 to Team Raney from the foundation, with the check signed by Pledger and AETN CFO Fred Wiedower.

More: Read Dixon’s memo to foundation board members about the Team Raney payment, including AETN’s agreement with Team Raney.

The foundation board eventually reconsidered the Raney payment, rescinding its decision not to fund the contract, but the working relationship between Pledger and Dixon suffered.

“After the February board meeting, Ms. Pledger did not communicate with me,” Dixon wrote.

Dixon attributed her firing to her “good faith attempts to fulfill my duties to explain Foundation policy to Ms. Pledger, to attempt to require that the policies be followed, and to inform the Board of what was taking place.” Dixon’s appeal, overseen by attorney Melva Harmon of Little Rock, asks for an investigation and foundation board hearing, and for Dixon to get her job back.

Pledger, whose annual salary is $123,000, wrote in Dixon’s termination letter that she would receive “an additional six biweekly pay periods with full benefits” in return for signing a nondisclosure agreement. Dixon told Arkansas Business that she did not accept that offer, but she otherwise chose to let her documents speak for her.

Audit Cites Vehicle Use

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.

More: Read the complete AETN financial report for 2018.

AETN’s response said that agency staff members did not know to notify Pledger about her state vehicle documentation requirements, and that the “daily commuting rate per IRS regulations was properly recorded as compensation.” Pledger returned the vehicle to the agency fleet, and AETN said it was continuing to calculate reimbursement due.

In other management responses, AETN said it would improve practices to conform with state regulations.

“I’d like to get back to talking about the future of AETN,” Pledger told Arkansas Business by phone. “It’s exciting. We’re moving into the future as a 21st-century media company, to better serve Arkansas.”

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