No unusual findings discovered in RETN audit (7/2/09)

July 2, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

A review of the Regional Educational Television Network’s finances was released last week, with an independent auditor finding no “significant errors or irregularities.” Cable company Comcast ordered the report earlier this year as part of an ongoing contract dispute between the national company and RETN.

Comcast has raised questions about the financial record keeping of RETN. But now Scott Campitelli, executive director for RETN, believes the report vindicates the small educational access organization and hopes both parties can come to an agreement soon. He said Comcast and RETN were scheduled to sit down face to face on July 2 to continue negotiations.

“We’d prefer not to go through litigation to settle things,” Campitelli said.

RETN, hosted by Comcast on channel 16, provides educational coverage of local school districts throughout the Champlain Valley, including Williston and St. George. Comcast has accused RETN of poor financial bookkeeping and has petitioned the Vermont Public Service Board to suspend the contract of one RETN coverage area and not renew another contract that has expired.

Comcast subscriber fees pay for RETN’s budget and programming.

The report, completed by the Williston-based certified public accountant firm Davis & Hodgdon Associates, found that RETN did have incomplete financial records for much of 2006 and 2007. The report also noted the cable access organization improved its bookkeeping practices in 2008.

Campitelli said there were no surprises in the auditor’s findings.

“We knew we had untimely bookkeeping — we never disputed that,” Campitelli said.

He said the improvements, some of which were insisted upon by Comcast, have helped streamline RETN’s finances. Other proposed changes by Comcast would have usurped the authority of RETN’s board of directors, Campitelli has said.

“It’s always helpful to be scrutinized, to be honest,” Campitelli said. “We just didn’t like the way it was approached.”

A representative from Comcast said in an e-mail to the Observer that the cable company received the report and is currently reviewing the results.

“Comcast is currently evaluating the audit and is hopeful that the findings will provide a road map to adapt best practices that ensure our customers’ investments in educational access programming are spent appropriately,” said Laura Brubaker, a Comcast public relations associate. “Comcast is committed to providing meaningful public and educational access that best meets the needs and interests of our customers.”

Comcast was due to issue the report in mid-May in time for a status conference before the Vermont Public Service Board this month. With the late release, no follow-up date with the board has been scheduled. Campitelli said he hopes one-on-one discussions with Comcast this week will do away with the need to iron out issues before the board.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to settle this in a day, but we’ll get Comcast’s view of the report and we’ll know how we can move forward,” Campitelli said.

Part of the auditor’s report included recommendations on how improved and increased communication between Comcast and RETN could keep the partnership successful. Many of the recommendations center around Comcast and RETN creating a set of bookkeeping guidelines both parties will understand.

Campitelli said RETN was drafting a response to the recommendations, as well as to the report itself, and would release that soon.

In relation to the ongoing dispute between Comcast and RETN, the Vermont Public Service Board is starting a discussion between cable companies and local access providers on the best way to handle contracts. Campitelli said the board will look at whether there should be one contract for Vermont’s cable access companies.

“The board is finding out that it’s a time burden and a big administrative headache to negotiate all of these (contracts) separately,” Campitelli said.