Hits, Errors, and Home Runs at ACTV

Missing funds at Austin Community Television spur an investigation and accusations

ACTV board Chair Ron Frank
ACTV board Chair Ron Frank

After a year of noisy controversy, things seemed to be settling down at the Austin Community Access Center – better known as the administrative structure for the city's all-access airwaves, Austin Community Television. Apparently having vanquished the three-headed hydra of commercialization, programming regimentation, and the shotgun adoption of the walking-wounded Austin Music Network – and with internal agreements covering the same ready for approval – one might think ACTV would be in high spirits as the year turned. Instead, sudden talk of missing operating funds – possibly siphoned from ACTV bank accounts – has city auditors and the Travis Co. district attorney's office investigating the station, while ACTV producers denounce their board of directors for alleged improprieties, nepotism, and – once again – commercialism, in an explosion of long-simmering tension and resentment.

Trouble in ACTV-land resumed in earnest on Dec. 21, when the board cryptically suspended Executive Director John Villareal for "nonperformance of duties." Momentarily lost in the commotion was Villareal's own resignation letter, dated the day before: a terse, two-sentence statement, saying only he was no longer able to perform his duties. Weeks earlier, the city auditor had begun an investigation of ACTV finances, and more recently the Austin Police Department and the D.A. have been asked to review any related criminal issues, with the outcome still uncertain. In the latest casualty, on Tuesday board member Henry Calderon resigned, ostensibly because his daughter is employed at the station as a part-time accountant, in violation of ACAC anti-nepotism rules.

ACTV's Producers Advisory Committee, in theory an elected liaison between the board and the station's numerous producers, had been long inactive, and was only reconvened last summer to battle the board's proposal to "brand" ACTV's three stations (cable channels 10, 11, and 16) as discrete religious, arts and entertainment, and "free speech" channels – the latter including the occasionally raucous call-in shows most often associated with access television. In the fall, the reformed PAC began to hear disturbing rumors about the station's financial management.

Former Executive Director John Villareal
Former Executive Director John Villareal

At a Friday, Sept. 10 PAC meeting, producers decided to contact the city auditor. Producer and PAC Chair Stefan Wray says that during the following weekend, he had a conversation with former board member Sharon Brady, during which Brady said she was concerned about money possibly missing from the station's savings account. According to Wray, Brady told him the savings account, which had contained about $35,000 in accumulated year-end surpluses some five years before, now held only $3,000. Furthermore, Brady told him, the board had never authorized any expenditures out of the savings account, and any check written on it had to be signed by a board officer as well as by one of the staff administrators. The producers contacted the auditor's office on Sept. 13, and the investigation apparently began shortly thereafter.

In the wake of Villareal's resignation, the producers are aiming their continuing criticism at the board, especially current chair Ron Frank. "It's a good thing he wasn't Nero," a producer said of Frank at ACTV headquarters last Friday, as producers held a forum for candidates in the upcoming PAC election. "He wouldn't be fiddling while Rome burned, he'd be out of town!" This sentiment reflects the frustration many producers feel with the board, and they credit the now-revived PAC with shedding light on the station's current troubles, even while certain board members, they believe, were blissfully ignorant – or perhaps worse, the producers complain (in a welter of miscellaneous and largely unsubstantiated accusations).

On Friday, some producers were cracking wise in the station's foyer, while on a soundstage within, a dozen others were addressing their colleagues and Austin viewers in a televised PAC candidate forum in anticipation of the Jan. 20 election. During his turn, current PAC chair Wray reiterated his distrust of the current board. Alluding to his September conversation with Sharon Brady, Wray said, "Brady told me she had serious concerns about Henry Calderon and John Villareal. She said she had reason to believe there was money missing from ACTV bank accounts." In the wake of the resignations of Villareal and Calderon, Wray said, "I think board president Ron Frank needs to resign too. I'm not suggesting Frank is involved with missing funds, but it seems to have happened under his watch."

Wray was careful to avoid linking Frank directly to the financial investigation, but he and several other producers obviously distrust Frank's stewardship. Candidate George Wooley alluded vaguely to "threats" at the station under Frank and "the tyrants that run the place," while Wray circulated a petition among the producers calling for Frank's removal. Wray and other producers say Frank was instrumental in pushing the apparently abandoned "image enhancement" proposal that would have separated ACTV shows into content-classified chunks.

As it happens, Frank also works as a motivational corporate speaker – or, as his Web site, www.ronfrank.com, describes it, "the designated hitter for the corporate league." In a testimonial to Frank's inspirational talents, Time Warner Cable (which hosts the ACTV stations, and collects from its customers the fees that comprise the bulk of ACTV's budget) proclaims on the site, "Ron Frank didn't just get a base hit at our conference – he knocked it clean out of the park!" The fee Frank accordingly collected from Time Warner – potentially a conflict of interest with his voluntary position on the ACTV board – has become no small point of contention among the station's producers, who loudly suspect that Time Warner is simply awaiting its best opportunity to take back the ACTV channels.

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