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June 11, 2009

RETN Calls Comcast's Bluff

The dispute between Comcast and the Regional Educational Technology Network entered a new phase today, with RETN officials calling on the telecom giant to release its overdue audit of the nonprofit's finances.

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

After contract talks stalled, 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.

Comcast says RETN has failed to file timely reports with the Public Service Board (PSB), a charge RETN admits and has worked to correct. Station officials say they have rectified the past problems and put in place procedures to ensure they will not continue. Comcast has also questioned what RETN has purchased.

As part of the deal they struck, RETN agreed to provide Comcast with selected budget items to be audited. They have, and met with the auditor between March and May.

RETN officials say Comcast told the Public Service Board that it would have the auditor's report ready for a mid-May conference. That time has come and gone.

“We are confident the auditor’s final report will show that, aside from our previously acknowledged tardiness, Comcast’s allegations of financial mismanagement are false,” said Scott Campitelli, RETN executive director. “We believe RETN has fully addressed Comcast’s concerns and now it’s time for Comcast to address ours.”

By failing to complete its report on time for the mid-May conference, Comcast is delaying the process and requiring the PSB to reschedule the conference for June or July. That means this process could end up costing RETN more money in legal fees.

“I’m not surprised Comcast failed to deliver its report as promised,” said Campitelli. “It’s consistent with their behavior throughout these negotiations. Apparently Comcast believes RETN should be held to a higher standard than it is capable of meeting itself.”

At the same time, RETN hired a CPA/consulting accountant to assist in presenting the requested financial documents. She spent more than 70 hours looking at RETN’s financial records, RETN said in a statement.

“Except for some less significant credit card charges, nearly all expenses that were selected for the engagement were documented,” said CPA Alice Astarita. “Although RETN had fallen behind schedule in bank reconciliations in 2007 and early 2008, RETN caught up and all of the requested bank statements were reconciled.”

A member of RETN’s board of directors, composed of reps from local school districts and communities, takes exception to Comcast’s characterization that the station is mismanaged.

“RETN has responsibly managed the community's resources in order to achieve exceptional educational access services and programs, and has even been recognized at the national level for its excellent work,” said Cindy Remy, the board secretary.

RETN recently won the Alliance for Community Media’s 2009 award for “Overall Excellence in Educational Access,” in a category for organizations with budgets between $200,001 and $499,999.

Nearly all of RETN’s funding comes from several cable companies. Yet only Comcast has raised concerns about the channel's finances.  Cable companies such as Comcast are required by federal and state law to return a portion of their revenues to local communities to provide Public Educational and Government (PEG) access services. In return, they get access to public land to wire people's homes for cable.

Officials with several PEG channels believe it's part of Comcast's broader effort to have a say over what PEG channels purchase and how they provide programming to the community. In fact, Comcast recently polled Vermonters on how they feel about PEG channels, and how they are funded.

“We believe decisions about the educational access services and programs RETN provides should be made by representatives from the communities we serve, ” Remy said. “After all, it is the community's money.”

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