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June 26, 2009

Comcast Completes Audit of RETN Finances

A long-awaited review of Regional Educational Technology Network's finances by telecom giant Comcast is complete, with no major findings of irregularity or a need to probe further.

That's good news for RETN officials, who have feared that Comcast would try to exert undue and unprecedented oversight on its day-to-day operations. Comcast disagrees with what RETN and other public-access channels spend on certain equipment and programming. The company currently has a petition before state regulators.

The two sides, which have been locked in tough negotiations for more than a year, have also agreed in the past 24 hours to attempt to resolve their disputes by meeting face to face, said Scott Campitelli, RETN’s executive director. The first negotiation will take place on July 2.

"We're hopeful a negotiated settlement can be reached," Campitelli told Seven Days.

RETN officials called on Comcast earlier this month to issue the report, as it was nearly a month late. The fiscal review was ordered after contract talks stalled earlier this year and Comcast asked state regulators to absolve it from giving money to RETN to provide educational programming on Channel 16 for parts of Chittenden County. That led to the two sides' inking a deal to keep RETN funded while they hammered out their issues.

The accounting firm hired by Comcast to evaluate a three-year sample of RETN’s financial records issued its report and recommendations this week. The firm said the samples it reviewed were enough, and no "significant errors or irregularities" were found to warrant expanding the probe.

“We believe Comcast’s report affirms what we’ve been saying for a year and a half. While RETN fell behind schedule for a period of time, we have been working diligently on our financial reporting. It is now up to date,” said Campitelli.  “More importantly, outside our acknowledged tardiness, the report shows Comcast’s allegations of financial mismanagement are false.”

Comcast officials weren't as quick to draw conclusions from the report.

“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 spokeswoman. "Comcast is committed to providing meaningful public and educational access that best meets the needs and interests of our customers.”

The report primarily focuses on issues of timeliness in reporting and transactions the auditor identified as unusual. Alice Astarita, a CPA hired by RETN to assist in presenting the requested financial information, investigated these “unusual” items and said “substantially all Comcast’s labels of financial statement items as ‘unusual’ merely reflect fluctuations that are part of normal operations and could have been easily explained if RETN management had been given the opportunity to do so.”

RETN is developing a point-by-point response to Comcast’s report.

“RETN has worked hard for 18 years to earn our community’s trust,” said Campitelli. “We remain committed to making sure the resources they have entrusted to us are used wisely and fully accounted for.” Campitelli added, “I assure you, we will continue doing all we can to preserve and defend our community’s investment against outside threats.”

For background on this story, check out  "Fair Game" and Blurt.

First Adelphia & now Comcast going after community access TV. And they do it with ratepayer money.

Shameful. Perhaps we should tell Comcast not to waste any more of our money on this bullying.

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