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January 28, 2014

Allegations Against Vermont Public Television CEO at Heart of Board Intrigue

VPT president and CEO John King

Many of the allegedly secret meetings that have landed Vermont Public Television's board of directors in hot water with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were held to discuss allegations made by a former employee against VPT president and CEO John King, according to several people involved with the situation.

The former employee, who spoke to Seven Days on the condition of anonymity, said she told then-board vice chairwoman Pam Mackenzie in February 2012 that King had directed sexually harassing remarks at her when she worked for the station. She also accused him of engaging in questionable practices in fundraising and the use of grant money. 

King vigorously disputes all of the charges, saying they were investigated and "found to be unsubstantiated."

The allegations prompted board members to engage an independent human resources firm — Shelburne-based Church, Engle & Associates — in March 2012 to investigate the former employee's charges. As the board weighed the allegations, its executive committee met repeatedly without providing notice to the public, according to records of the meetings obtained by Seven Days. In April 2012 alone, according to those records, the executive committee met seven times behind closed doors.

The federally funded CPB, which provides 16 percent of VPT's $7.7 million operating budget, is currently investigating whether a total of 20 board meetings between July 2011 and August 2013 were held out of compliance with federal open meetings requirements. The investigation, which could result in fines or a loss of funding for VPT, was prompted by an anonymous letter sent to CPB's inspector general on Christmas Eve. That letter focused only on board governance and did not address allegations against King.

The former employee provided Seven Days with documentation of some of her correspondence with Mackenzie and with Church, Engle & Associates. Two other former employees told Seven Days they witnessed King engaging in "inappropriate" behavior, though neither witnessed the specific incidents of alleged sexual harassment described by the first employee.

A fourth former employee described witnessing King making sexually explicit comments to the original complainant four times and routinely making "raunchy" and "sexual" comments about and toward other female employees. The four variously described King as presiding over an "unhappy place," with "an environment of fear" and a "culture of real paranoia."

King, left, and VPT board members met Monday, January 27, at the South Burlington DoubleTree.

According to the first employee, King made "inappropriate" sexual comments in her presence roughly a dozen times, contributing to what she called a hostile environment.

Seven Days spoke with four other people close to the situation who described aspects of the board's investigation and deliberation. The paper did not obtain a copy of the report prepared by Church, Engle & Associates, nor documentation of the board's response.

In a written statement provided in response to questions from Seven Days, King said, "There was a complaint filed two years ago by a former employee, which was fully investigated over the course of several weeks and found to be unsubstantiated."

Jim Wyant, a former board member who resigned his post in November, backed King's version of events.

"During 2012 the board undertook an investigation of complaints that had been made by a former employee and concluded that they were without merit," he said.

King said he took exception to the disclosure of information relating to the situation, suggesting that the leak may have originated with the board.  

"It is the obligation of the Board to protect all personnel matters," he wrote. "I would be outraged if any personal information of staff or management was compromised. I'm not going to jump to any conclusions here, but there are serious consequences for a Board that cannot protect personnel matters of its staff."

In his statement, King intimated that disclosure of the 2012 allegations was intended to distract attention from the CPB's investigation of board procedures.

"The matter at hand is the Board's compliance with open meeting requirements — not a closed and confidential personnel matter," he wrote. "Let's focus on improving VPT's compliance, not changing the subject."

It's unclear precisely what actions the board took after Church, Engle & Associates completed its investigation into the former employee's accusations. But in an email sent to the former employee on April 20, 2012, Mackenzie wrote, "Thank you for participating in the investigation. The Board has taken the information you provided seriously, and has followed up."

Reached Monday, Mackenzie, who now serves as board chairwoman, declined to comment for this report. 

It appears that King's relationship with the board remains rocky, prompting some members of his current staff to rise to his defense. In December 2013, his four-member "senior management team" sent a page-long letter to the board "to express some concern regarding the relationship between the Board of Directors and our CEO."

The letter — signed by chief development officer George Hauenstein, chief communications and public relations officer Elizabeth Metraux, director of finance and administration Rob Cunningham and senior producer Joe Merone — refers to a "strained relationship between a few members of the Board and our President." It defends King as having "improved morale" at the station and for serving as "an effective leader of Vermont Public Television."

"Again, we understand that John has lost the confidence of several members of the Board," the senior management team concluded. "We speak unanimously, however, when we say that he has not lost ours. We look forward to moving ahead with the leadership of our CEO and the support of our Board."

Disclosure: Paul Heintz is an occasional paid guest on VPT's "Vermont This Week."

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