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Pledger Actions Drive AETN Employees to ComplainLock Icon

3 min read

Bad blood at the Arkansas Educational Television Network is spilling further into public, with employees accusing Executive Director Courtney Pledger of forcing early retirements, retaliating against subordinates who question her and holding employees in “open contempt.”

Oh, and there’s also a charge of misusing funds.

A March 8 letter from anonymous “concerned employees” cites a contract with content consultant Team Raney as “a clear, documentable example” of Pledger’s “repeated attempts to misuse funding.”

As chief of both AETN and its nonprofit ally, the AETN Foundation, Pledger oversaw the $36,000 consulting deal with Rachel Raney, a documentarian and North Carolina public media executive engaged to help improve the educational TV network’s content development. She also oversaw the dismissal of an employee who questioned how the contract was being funded, longtime foundation COO Mona Dixon, who was fired in February but has appealed.

The dispute centered on whether the consultant should have been paid with foundation funds or state agency funds.

The employees’ letter, provided to Arkansas Business by a former employee trusted by the authors, accused Pledger of using “end runs” around state procurement procedures and foundation rules, and it cited five “incorrect practices” noted in AETN’s legislative audit for fiscal 2018.

The audit 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 letter also says that longtime AETN human resources director Lela Hodges, who is taking early retirement, is prepared to talk about employee complaints with “any Commission or Foundation member who wants to talk to her about what she knows.”

Problems From Start
The problems began not long after Gov. Asa Hutchinson installed Pledger, former executive director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, to lead AETN two years ago, the letter said.

Tensions culminated in the firing of Dixon, who 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.”

Requests for comment from Rich, Hodges and AETN Commission Chair Annette Herrington brought no immediate responses.

The letter says Pledger lacks respect for AETN and its history, thinks employees are incompetent and has engaged in shouting matches and stormed out of meetings. “We believe the resulting fear she has created has been a factor in the early retirements of three additional employees,” the authors wrote, adding that Pledger has “caused a breach of trust” between AETN and the foundation, “two groups that have worked in successful harmony for decades.”

The foundation board has removed Pledger as its CEO and director, changing its bylaws after objecting to her handling of a $13,750 payment made from a foundation account.

“We urge you to gather a larger perspective, talk to other members of the AETN staff,” the letter urged foundation board members and AETN commissioners, who oversee the network for the state. “Talk to Courtney, review documents. Listen to everyone.”

The letter expresses pride in several of Pledger’s projects, including televising government meetings and state high school sports championships, as well as new digital initiatives. “But those wins cannot allow abuses to be ignored.”

In an email to Whispers, Pledger said the issue “continues to be a personnel matter that I’m not at liberty to discuss.” She added that it’s business as usual at the network, with her entire team “engaged in achieving our goals for today and the future.”

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