Despite Financial Losses and Warnings from State Auditors, Lax Oversight at Georgia Public Broadcasting Continues

An Open Records Request for emails by members of the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, the oversight body of Georgia Public Broadcasting, reveals a mostly inactive board that takes little interest in day to day operations.

This is despite three years of increasing financial losses at the state-funded agency as reported on its annual state audits.

The specific request was for email and text messages regarding GPB business by board members from April 1 to August 7, 2018.

The dates were chosen to minimize its scope and cost but cover a period of high-profile departures, two quarterly board meetings, and the end of the 2018 fiscal year.

A total of 109 pages were returned. Most are reminders, cancellations, or confirmations of meeting times.

Included board minutes record no objections to any motions or questions from board members regarding anything being presented. This is consistent with previous board minutes in which Commission members raised no concerns over major controversies such as the hiring of Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers or the secret, back room deal giving GPB daytime control of Georgia State University’s student-funded radio station WRAS.

The ORR does include an email asking about the need for an audit committee. The e-mail from Commission Chair Jan Paul to CEO Teya Ryan and Vice Chair John Stephenson is dated April 14th:

“A little while ago, Liz mentioned to me that we need to form an audit committee, which we’ve had in the past. I believe it is in the bylaws and if so, we need to form this committee. It occurred to me recently after reading an article in the AJC on the ARC’s audit problems, which resulted with the state pulling much of its funding, that we need to make sure we are compliant with our bylaws and conducting reviews.”

“Liz” refers to GPB’s Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Laprade. The “ARC” is the Atlanta Regional Commission.

There was no follow-up discussion included in the ORR.

Asked last week by email about the status of an audit committee and whether any documents of its proceedings are available, GPB’s Open Records contact replied “The audit committee has not yet been formed. I do not have a status as to when it will be.”

Last year’s state audit resulted in a letter from auditors to GPB’s board about internal controls that seemed to rebuke their leadership:

Trying to discover whether GPB gained or lost money in the 2018 fiscal year has been difficult. And whether or not its next state audit will be released before the Nov. election or a Gubernatorial debate set to air on GPB on Oct. 23rd is uncertain.

A spokesperson for the state audit department told me:

“The audit has not been released yet. But, we anticipate releasing the report before the November election. We do not provide any information until the audit has been released. If you would like any financial information prior to the release of the report, you may wish to contact GPTC.”

Contacting GPTC, they referred me to their 2017 audit and implied that the 2018 audit might not come out until after the Nov. election:

“Please see the link below of the Audit Report. Page 20 identifies losses and gains. The current year’s audit has not been released from our Auditors yet but we anticipate that is should be released and placed on the site by November if not sooner.”

Filing an Open Government Complaint with the state Attorney General’s office I was told “Because the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission is a state agency, our office represents that agency and GPB, and our conversations with them are covered by attorney-client privilege. Therefore, our mediation program cannot assist with complaints against GPB. However, we will talk to them about this issue, and if they are able to provide you with additional records, you will hear from them directly.”

No further information has been sent.

Members of the GPTC are politically appointed by the Gov.

After three years of financial losses in the late 90s, then Gov. Roy Barnes asked for the resignations of GPB’s President and entire board.

Current Gov. Nathan Deal has regularly interfered with GPB.

Last spring saw the departures of On Second Thought host Celeste Headlee and GPB Vice President for Radio Tanya Ott.

July’s board meetings were canceled. The reason stated in an email was a national meeting of top PBS affiliates facing competition from secondary stations as GPB does from PBA 30 in Atlanta.

Last year PBA rebranded its TV station as ATL-PBS prompting GPB to roll out billboards proclaiming “GPB is PBS for Atlanta.”

Now Channel 30 is branded as ATL-PBA suggesting someone forced them to drop the PBS.

Then in July, PBA announced it would become a full-service PBS affiliate. This Atlanta Journal-Constitution article offers some information on the switch but also fails to acknowledge the AJC’s own close ties to GPB.

Both stations now air many of the same programs close to each other. Since PBA began broadcasting PBS NewsHour at 7 p.m. GPB has repeated the same program immediately following their 6 p.m. airing.

All this follows the simulcasting of NPR programs on the two public broadcasters’ competing Atlanta radio stations and their ongoing billboard and bus campaigns for “NPR 88.5 GPB” and “WABE 90.1: Atlanta’s Choice for NPR.”

Both GPB and PBA receive federal funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. GPB also receives extensive state funding which PBA does not.

Despite its many scandals, GPB remains a favorite venue for politicians and journalists who might otherwise be calling for investigations.

While GPB’s arts programming has been cut, it’s political discussion program Political Rewind keeps expanding from once a week to almost daily on radio and now weekly on television.

On it, elected officials of both parties, including state legislators responsible for GPB’s funding, corporate lobbyists and campaign consultants with a financial interest in state politics, plus prominent political scientists and journalists offer “expert analysis” of political events.

None of them seem concerned about mismanagement at the very network they’re appearing on.

Atlanta writer and comedian. Occasional citizen journalist. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40. No relation to Steve.

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