Here’s More….

This story began over a month ago with information that the December layoffs at WHQR were not a result of the current economic situation…but instead, a result of internal problems.

I began looking into this by calling and emailing the Board at WHQR for a copy of their 2008 financial report and their by-laws. It was hard to reach anyone. Then one afternoon, a few days later, Board member Rob Zapple was at WECT’s door with copies.

He reiterated the stress that the economic downturn had placed them under…how they had forecasted for major growth…and the economy had undercut that dream. He said reducing staff – a large portion of expenses – was a difficult decision to make, but it was necessary in order to reduce their deficit. He asked me why I was inquiring and what my story was about. At that time, I didn’t completely know. I would need time to study their financial data and learn more about how WHQR operates…and how they are funded.

Soon after, I received a tip to look into their plans to go digital..specifically, about the purchase and installation of a new transmitter. I was told the grant money for the transmitter was received last spring…but the station had yet to go digital…why?

In order to research their grant, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The NTIA “assists public and non-profit entities in effectively using telecommunications and information technologies to better provide public services and advance other national goals. In addition, the office is administering programs that are helping the nation’s transition to digital television.” They also offer PTFP grants (Public Telecommunications Facilities Program) which is what WHQR received to purchase their digital equipment.

That application was received by the NTIA on October 31st, 2006 with the Federal Share of Cost: $110,250 and the Recipient Share of Cost: $36,750.

Also included in the files are Quarterly Reports that WHQR sent to their grant officers, updating them on their progress. The reports frequently cite problems with the transmission building as the cause for delay. Their analog transmitter (what they currently broadcast from) is in WECT’s transmission building. They wanted to install their digital transmitter at the same time that WECT was going HD. As I understand it, there was indeed room for WHQR to put their transmitter, but WECT needed to focus its attention on our own conversion because, unlike radio, going HD was mandatory for television…and Wilmington was the first city to do so. Our parent company, Raycom Media does not charge WHQR for use of its facility.

I made frequent calls to WHQR’s grant specialists asking for more information and clarification on the $110,250 being withdrawn by WHQR last spring…where was that money, where is the transmitter was? I called again on February 21st and spoke to grant specialist, Husai Rahman. Husai said that they had received an update from WHQR….

“Dear Ms. Rahman,

Pursuant to the conversation on February 19, 2009 pertaining to the aforementioned grant and the holding of the funds in an interest-bearing account, the following actions will be completed…Funds of $93,960.11 will be expended for the HD transmitter equipment within 30 days…the interest earned on the unexpended Federal funds will be returned to the Federal Government…Sincerely, J. Griff Weld, Treasurer WHQR…”

In the writing of the grant…there is a stipulation that says that if the money is not used within 30 days or the withdrawal…the money must be put into an interest-bearing account. At this point, I asked grant officials if they could confirm that this was the case. Did WHQR submit proof of deposit? What kind of account was it in? Could they pull from that account? What bank? Where is the paper work that demonstrates this? Here is the exact response I got:

Ms. Roman: A grantee’s bank documents would not be records NTIA or the Grants Officer would typically request or maintain.

So, no…there is no paper trail…following the money trail. They also told me that:

The recipient is not required to submit an itemized list of their expenses for each withdrawal.

WHQR withdrew the grant funds, but were not required to say what they spent it on.

On May 21st 2008 they had the full amount of the grant in their control. In the April 1st – June 30 2008 Quarterly Performance Report they say, “our HD Transmitter is currently being held in storage here in Wilmington pending the completion of our Transmitter site colleagues WECT TV installation of their HD equipment….We will complete installation as soon as the space is cleared and available (expected August 15th).

After that they report delays and filed for project completion extensions. No where on the grant documentation does WHQR say that the transmitter had been returned (or why)…or if the transmitter never actually made it to Wilmington….

Which would lead to hypothesis, based on these records….. that the transmitter is here…in Wilmington…sitting on the shelf waiting to be plugged in….

I made another FOIA request to the grant officials asking if there was any paperwork that documented that the transmitter was NOT in Wilmington (note: they have just told WECT that the transmitter will be arriving this week…so it obviously was not in storage the whole time…) or what had happened to the money that they later said had been in an account the whole time. They never responded to that request, although, I know from a Delivery Receipt that it was received.

During this investigation, I had contacted Board President Anup Sharma, Treasurer Griff Weld and Finance Manager Barbara Bush to request an interview about their financial matters. There was no response to my first round of emails and calls.

I did finally get a reply from Barbara Bush, who said that I should talk to Anup Sharma. After a few calls to Mr.Sharma, he told me that they were upset over the “sensationalism” of earlier reports (Star News and Wilmington Business Journal had both run stories). He said that he would not discuss financial matters, especially before their pledge drive and noted that Board members were very busy planning. I said that I thought a discussion of their financial situation would be important before their pledge drive. He reiterated that it simply would not be possible due to the many tasks they had undertaken to organize the drive.

I then called Griff Weld. Griff also said that I should refer to Anup Sharma. He repeated that they were indeed very busy. I said I would keep the interview to a half hour. We had a very similar dialogue about discussing money matters right before the pledge drive. His response was that the station would be hesitant to do so because it might affect contributions to the drive.

Because of their financial situation (a large deficit and questions surrounding the use of grant money) there did seem to be a need to bring these matters to a clear…to reassure the public about both the obstacles they had faced and also…what they were doing to get back on their feet. It seemed important for the public to know these answers before being called upon to make donations. It also seemed important for the station to take the opportunity to address the public that supports them.

I sent the following letter with both a Read and Delivery Receipt to be sure that my request was clear:

From: Roman, Casey

Sent: Thursday, March 05, 2009 3:11 PM

Subject: Interview

March 5, 2009

Mr. Anup Sharma,

On Wednesday March 4th I requested an interview with WHQR Board Treasurer Griff Weld, Finance Director Barbara Bush and yourself.

Board member Rob Zapple provided us with the financial statements from 2008 along with his explanation as to the challenges facing WHQR. Based upon those documents and our conversation, I feel now is a critical time to address the financial concerns surrounding your organization. In airing my report this month, I think it would behoove the board to be available for comment.

WECT will proceed with presenting our research thus far. If these Board members will not make themselves available for comment until after the Pledge Drive, I will report the situation as such.

If you are able to find time to address our questions, I hope that we can meet early next week.

Casey Roman

WECT Investigative Reporter

 

 

I never received a response to that letter. Last night in my report, we did say that the Board was not available for comment before or during the pledge drive when this investigation was taking place. Just last week I sent an email to those individuals again…inquiring about an update on the transmitter…I again received conformation that that letter had been both delivery and read. Again, there was no response. I can’t tell the Board’s side of the story if they will not make themselves available to do so.

John Milligan, the station’s former General Manager who was laid off in December did agree to go on the record. I think it is important to note that Milligan did not pursue an interview with us. He accepted my invitation. John spoke at length about the past, present and future of WHQR. He acknowledged the use of the government’s grant money to back up the line of credit at the bank.

John Milligan was a major advocate of the station going digital. Digital transmission for radio is still optional (it was mandatory for TV). John said it was the future of radio. Even though multi-channel broadcasts existed, at the time, in only large markets (where larger audiences and larger sums of underwriting can pay for more programming..)…John said it was part of the vision of the station and the inevitable horizon for radio. I’m told that when they formally started pursuing this vision…with the grant….digital radios weren’t even available for sale in Wilmington. I questioned John about undertaking such an expensive and large project when it didn’t seem that it was even in demand here….he reiterated that it was the future…and WHQR would be in front of the movement.

The conversation with John touched upon MANY different topics. For the purposes of this entry…I will focus on our conversation about the use of the government’s grant money. Here is more from my interview with John Milligan…

In regards to the decision to use grant money for operating expenses…

He says, “That decision was made by the Finance and Audit committee.” He said the station was running a line of credit with local bankers and, “That money went against a line of credit at the bank. It paid off that amount of credit completely.” He then went on to explain that the line of credit was for, “operating expenses, paying programming fees, things like that.”

In regards to the Board understanding that this was not stipulated as an allowable use of grant money….

He agreed and said, “It violates the purposes of the grant.” He also said that they were in fact allowed to keep that money in an account (see above about the “interest-bearing” account) at which point I asked about whether or not that account could back up expenses and whether or not it was interest-bearing…he said, “I doubt it was in an interest-bearing account. It was just in one of those general accounts sitting at the bank.”

All of this…I tried to confirm with the grant officials. DID this violate the grant? How much “grey” area do they allow? The grant says its for EQUIPMENT….what are the consequences for using it elsewhere? The grant official read me the letter that I received from the Freedom of Information Act request…that basically said, “here is the information you have requested”…but he would not comment specifically about the rules of WHQR’s grant.

Yes…frustrating.

John also said that despite being the General Manager…there was no consultation with him on important personnel and financial matters regarding the station.

Let me switch now to addressing the conversation I had with their auditor, Chuck Earney.

Although the Board cites the economy as the reason for their struggle…underwriting (advertising) for WHQR has increased over the years. What’s also increased…is expenses.

To compare:

                        2001                             2005                  2008 (unaudited)

Revenue    $886,010                  $1,035,165                  $1,150,157

vs.

Expenses $864,322                      $1,155,380                       $1,520,782

Earney said that they hired more staff to bring in more underwriting ($$). The marginal benefit (the extra dollars brought in per new staff member) were not high enough to justify the amount of money being brought in. As a result, they ended up in the red.

Earney showed on their financial statements where the grant money was recorded…under “temporarily restricted funds.” He also said that he was not aware of the specific stipulations of the grant and that the rules surrounding the interest-bearing account were unusual.  Earney says that this looks like a situation where the “legal responsibility gets mixed up with the cash flow.” 

Meaning…organizations take the money the government gives them…drop it into their bank account and it ends up getting used “in the mix” of their cash flow…with the underlining assumption that they will still fulfill the contract. He says in his “seasoned opinion, delivering the equipment, putting it in place, solves any problem.” He said WHQR may get a “slap on the wrist” but the most important thing is staying afloat and “focusing on the mission”…getting the equipment installed.

Again, I tried to confirm whether this was indeed a major violation…or…instead “slap on the wrist”…but grant officials would not comment specifically. They would only issue a statement that they….

“carefully review and audit every grant to help eliminate waste, fraud and abuse of public funds.”

Board member Jeff Hovis sent an email to the station last night saying that the transmitter would arrive by Thursday of this week. They told WECT that they would like to move forward with installing it as soon as possible. Again, note that their transmitter is in a Raycom/Brunswick Tower owned building (Raycom is our parent company). Because the contract between WHQR and Brunswick Tower hasn’t been renewed in a few years…the two will have to negotiate a new contract before installation can proceed. I do not know if that will effect the revised construction completion date of June 2009 that was last reported to grant officials.

WHQR Report

Hang tight folks…working on the full report right now…its a long one but will be up today….

A Bargain by the Barrel…Pricey at the Pump

Do you remember the first time in the past seven years that gas hit $2/gallon?

I do. I was living in Durham so it must have been the summer of 2004.

Do you remember the reaction as we teetered at $1.99?

I remember mine! -but I will get in trouble for using those exact words on here-

 

No one could fathom paying (*gasp*) TWO dollars for gas.

Then we couldn’t fathom paying THREE dollars…..

Suddenly last summer…three seemed like a bargain and FOUR was the new threshold….

 

If I worked at OPEC….(1) I would be a lot richer and drive a nicer car and (2) I would be giggling in amusement at how malleable consumer spending is.

Gas is back up to $2/gallon…and there has been little uproar. In fact…I’ve yet to hear a single person mention it. I started to get antsy at $1.80 even though my Scion only needs to be filled up one…maybe two times per month (yes, I live close to work).

 

$2? Why? Why if the price per barrel of crude oil is < $50 (remember a year ago when it was >$140…remember?!) are we paying MORE at the pump.

Here’s an update from MSNBC:

Oil's Ups & Downs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today oil prices fell as a result on the market’s tumble (check the DOW…make sure you’re sitting down first).

The article says that, “Most energy-market analysts found no fundamental reason for a rally this month that pushed oil prices from $40 per barrel to more than $50.” (isn’t THAT reassuring?)

Prices have gone up because more oil is being held back in inventory. Check your Econ 101 book….supply and demand…if they cut back on supply (hold in inventory)…the price will go up….so says the Econ 101 book….

In addition…OPEC is cutting production and domestic producers are putting a lid on oil projects.  Oil inventories also rose because of losses by big corporate sectors like banking.

“The U.S. government last week said crude storage facilities were brimming with more oil than they’ve had in 16 years. Combined with the strategic petroleum reserve, the nation now has 1.05 billion barrels of oil in storage — enough to fuel roughly 44 million cars for a year.” (please…PLEASE do not go out and get His and Her matching Hummers on this news!)

“‘You can’t swing a cat without hitting a barrel of crude oil in the United States,” analyst Stephen Schork said in his daily markets report Monday.'” (PETA was not available to comment on Mr. Schork’s cat swinging……) 

OPEC says it will slash production by 4.2 million barrels per day…but compliance by all the the cronies…ah hem..pardon me…what I meant to say was, “members” of OPEC may be dubious says analysts. Now look in your Econ 102 book…under “Prisoner’s Dilemma”…..

If the whole gang offers to cut production and boost prices then everyone gets the same result. But if the whole gang..minus one cuts production…and the minus one plugs along and offers lower prices…the minus one gets the business and the plan….tanks. (awful pun…completely intended)

The new national average is $2.048. That’s still $1.238 cheaper than this time last year. (still too expensive in my book!)

 

In other news…tonight at 11pm I will air my report on WHQR’s use of their government grant. This has been a very stressful story to produce due to the volume of paperwork involved in a grant…but primarily…due to the fact that the Board at HQR would not agree to an interview.

 

That report, again, airs tonight…and the invitation to the Board is still on the table. I will post all the background info later tonight…..

 

Happy Monday!

On CLEARANCE Now: Police Cars, Slot Machines, Stolen Jewelery

Reuters had an article by Tom Ryan about how cash-strapped municipalities have created their own take on Ebay to make up for missing revenue. (“Cash-hungry U.S. states turn to Web to auction goods“)

 

These types of auctions used to happen in parking lots…now they’ve moved online. Of the 48 states that are currently struggling with a deficit…so far there’s been a record of $ucce$$ with this idea:

–>Tampa put $300K in the bank from the sale of a 1978 Piper police airplane.

–>Alabama made about $3 million in Jan/Feb of this year selling confiscated bikes at $270 a pop, among other things.  (I dont know how great of a deal THAT is…I mean…you can get a state of the art Mongoose in pink with pom-pom handle bars for about $30 at Wal-Mart…….;-)

–>Austin pocketed $388,100 on confiscated slot machines.

 

 

Interested in getting your OWN state-of-the-art VOTING MACHINE?! Well then…log on to www.govdeals.com and start your bidding! There are some great deals on exercise equipment and furniture.

 

I’m in line for a 1988 Broce Broom street sweeper…for the sheer enjoyment of seeing all other cars move to get out of my way…and have preferential parking downtown….I have YET to see the parking leprechauns (they DO seem to come out of nowhere…) slap a fat ticket on a street sweeper.

 

Happy Friday everyone! I’ll be locked in the dark inside the edit bay all day working on the last sweeps story of the month….coffee donations are welcome….

Give Me An Oil Change…Not A Sales Pitch

When you are blonde…5’2″ (on a good day)…and show little interest in the inner workings of your car…its easy to become a walking bulls eye for a mechanic’s sales pitch for things OTHER than what you came in for…

(this is of course…a hypothetical situation…the fact that I completely fit the above description has no relevance here……so here is more of what happened…hypothetically…to this girl who we will call…for continuity’s sake…Casey Roman)

I go to get an oil change. The wait is THREE hours long. Not just at shop A…but shop B…C…AND D. (All in Wilmington). When I finally get in…its not long before the…”we recommends” start coming….

It begins with my air filter…which is brought to me as evidence, to point out its grey hue…and that they *recommend* a change. I can’t argue…I have no idea what the threshold is for air filters…the very point at which they are unable to perform their duty…of filtering. I agree. Add $17.95.

 

I did not expect that during my OIL change that they would also check my battery. Perhaps they are just really thorough..for that I would thank them. However, they…recommended…I replace it. They said it was dying and asked if I had had trouble starting the car.

No. I have not had trouble starting my car. Granted..batteries are not designed to last forever (its called “planned obsolescence” folks…)…but no..no warning signs.

They (the mechanics at the shop) told me I was in luck…they had just ONE more of my battery left and they might be able to talk one of the guys into staying late to install it. My $12.00 oil change was about to turn into a $135 + purchase…..oye.

I deferred replacement till the following weekend. (1) I wasn’t convinced that I needed a new battery…(2) I wasn’t prepared to drop that much money….there were movies to be rented that night…..

I took my car a few days later to an Exxon/Mobile station and asked them to SHOW me how much battery I had left….the results: the batter was fine…its in the “green” and while it IS wearing down…they told me there was NO need to get a new one right away.

I was….[    ] (“mad”)

Exxon man said that I should see some warning signs before the battery goes kicks the bucket….this is not always the case but I thought I’d share some of that info….to save you some money in the event that you are not in imminent danger of having your car die on the road….

1. First turn on your lights and some battery operated functions (fan, radio, etc)…then turn on your car…if there is a slow engine turnover or if the lights go dim…it may be time for a change.

2. Try to notice differences on days with different temperatures. If its hard to start on cold days…and easy on warm days…it may be time for a change. This should be no problem to check seeing as how we have a few days of cold followed by a few days of summer here….

3. Make sure any slow turnover (or complete failure) is due to a DEAD battery vs. a draining battery. For example…leaving a dome light on too long will drain the battery but if you can get it going again..and drive around for a while…the battery should recharge itself. On the other hand….if its an old, dead battery….a jump may get you to the mechanic but not much further.

 

Now I’m no mechanic…obviously. But these are some of the suggestions I got when I asked a few car gurus. I’m told that AutoZone also does free checks. (None of this advice came from AutoZone…no shameless plug here..)

 

So if you feel like you are getting..the big sell…get a second opinion or ask to SEE the battery level.

County Line Confusion

Latoya Anderson…a fellow Yankee…called me here at the station to tell me about her child care debacle. I had to asked her repeatedly to stop  yelling…she was so fired up! (No sense in wasting those sound bites!)

 

Here’s more of the story….

Latoya says she waited seven months on Bladen County’s wait list to qualify for the aid. Not only would the kids have somewhere to go after school but she’d also be saving a lot of money. She uses “Best Day Care” which costs her about $650 to $800 per month. I’m not sure why it varied…perhaps she didn’t use it every day…or some weeks used it more than others.

 

 

County’s will confirm an applicant’s address by using a 911 verifier. Bladen County admits to confirming Latoya’s address on Old Boardman Road to be inside Bladen.  I drove down that road…it IS confusing…it stops..starts…twists and turns from Bladen into Columbus.

 

Latoya says the county pulling her file for “review” was hardly random. She says that her sitter was having trouble getting payment from the county and her frequent calls of concern were what Latoys says, drove the county to pull up her file…for a second glance. Fay Lewis, the state supervisor of the program, says that all files are pulled for quarterly review to make sure that people on the wait list still qualify…or still need the service. Lewis says that Latoya was NOT singled out.

 

When her notice arrived that she was being cut off, they told her she had only ten days left of service. Latoya flew into action. She appealed to the county AND the state. They offered to extend her services until the end of the year….that extension continued into January and February as she continued making appeals. The period of the extension is the portion that the county is asking back for…about $1600.

 

Lewis says that for every day that Anderson was being served in Bladen County…she was taking another Bladen County family’s place. Latoya is completely aware that there are many families in need…but she says she wasn’t trying to take someone else’s service…she was simply taking what the county offered her.

 

 

Lewis noted that state assistance programs are an option for families…but they can’t be relied on. Its the state’s way of offering to help…but families can not look at it as an automatic entitlement.

 

 

 

I asked Latoya how on Earth she didn’t know which county she lived in. She swears up, down and across that she didn’t. I asked that same question to the state and they said they are not charging her with fraud…so it doesn’t appear that there is suspicion that she intentionally pursued Bladen…because Bladen did not have a wait list…while Columbus County did.

 

 

 

Fay Lewis pointed out that 27,000 other children are waiting for service throughout North Carolina…there are many families in need. Lewis says the program does what it can to help families out but considering the economy…there just isn’t enough money to go around….supply vs. demand. She also said her program is hoping to get a second wind with the stimulus package.

 

 

Lewis reiterated the fact that Latoya’s aid had been extended while she was appealing…first till the end of the year…then until Febrary 27th. She says this was done on good will. Latoya argues her extention has little to do with good will…they were ready to promptly cut her off within ten days of the first notice…her extension was granted only after she raised Cain.

 

 

I spoke with Latoya this morning. She has still yet to receive word from officials that she will not have to pay back that money. I asked Fay Lewis if the department had notified Latoya about that decision and she said she wasn’t sure if Bladen County had done so….no one at BladenCounty would speak with me directly about this issue.

 

 

I’ve been reading the discussion on our website…THANK YOU everyone…its great to see some dialouge. Keep it going…I know there are a lot of families who work hard to make ends meet and my-oh-my can child care be expensive!

 

 

I gave this to our web producer but I will post it here as well. If you are a family who is needing care…here are some other options for you:

 

If you are in need of child care assistance here are some options:

  • Head Start is a resource for preschool age children and school age children that charge little or no fee for care.  To find a provider in your area, click here.
  • Contact your county’s department of social services to find out which specific types of assistance they offer by searching here.  
  • You can search for more specific county information by going to: www.ncchildcare.net
    From the Home page of the web site, choose the Parents tab, from that point select Parent Resources tab and follow Steps 1-3 for contact information.
  • Put your name on your county’s wait list. If you wait till the last minute you will be on the wait list for quite some time.

There is currently no funding available in Bladen and Columbus Counties, so here are some options specifically for those areas:

Preschool Program

Mt. Olive Head Start Program – Whiteville
Contact: Jackie Baldwin, Intake Worker
Telephone: 910-648-4860. 
Transportation available 
Specific documentation required
Available slots for 3-year-olds

After School Programs

S.O.S. (Support Our Students)
Tabor City Elementary School
Contact: Debra Hammond, Principal
Telephone number during school hours: 910-653-3618
SOS Telephone Number: 910-653-9277  (call during after school hours)

The Dream Center CDC
S Martin Luther King Jr Avenue
Whiteville
2 Sites: Whiteville and Fair Bluff
Contact Evelyn Troy
Telephone: 910-642-0633
Provides tutorial and other services 

Other Resources

S.O.S.
Tabor City Middle School
Contact: Kent Lovett, Principal
Telephone: 910-653-3637

Bolton Youth Center –
Telephone: 910-655-2498      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Boswell Capital Bull-

The piece I did on Boswell Capital seems to have opened the flood gates on victims emailing in to share their stories. To recap: Boswell is a “lending firm” who says their address is 2002 Eastwood Road in Wilmington…they’ve been making calls in our area for customers…the basic premise: you send in a sizable “collateral” and you will later get your loan. They say the collateral is for “high risk” clients and its paid in the form of a MoneyGram…to Canada. Conveniently…MoneyGrams are almost impossible to trace and the process of tracing and getting your funds back in the event of fraud takes months.

 

It seems the report has spread across the country…I’m now getting emails from all over the place….Here’s another victim:

I saw your report on Boswell Captial Group. This place is a scam. I was taken for $900.00 I live in Tremont, IL and I have personally spoken to 2 other victims one in California and one in Indiana. This scam is huge and it spans several states, from my research their have been victims in IL, Ohio, California, Missouri, and Virginia! There are probably hundreds of other people that have been scammed that probably don’t even realize it yet!

What makes this case so difficult to pursue is that the company is based in Canada which means that our Federal Government is likely to be hesitant to pursue it. What victims have told me is that you have to file a complaint with your state’s Attorney General…in NC…his name is Roy Cooper…and here is is contact info:

9001 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-9001
Telephone: 919-716-6400 • Fax: 919-716-6750
Consumer Protection: 1-877-5-NOSCAM

If your AG gets enough complaints…they are more likely to pursue a case. Make those calls everyone!

If you receive a call from Boswell…let me know! And PLEASE…do not PAY money to RECEIVE money!

Keep me updated everyone.