Former PBS Distribution executive accused of embezzling $2.1 million

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The former finance director of PBS Distribution, a partnership between PBS and Boston’s WGBH that handles digital and video sales, is accused of embezzling some $2.1 million in a lawsuit filed Monday.

Christopher C. Morris of Chelsea, Mass., allegedly deposited 202 checks in his personal account at Citizens Bank from 2008-13 that were payable to PBS, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. The lawsuit does not say how long Morris worked for PBSd.

Morris forged PBS’s endorsement on the checks, the lawsuit contends. Federal Insurance Co. (FIC), which insures PBS and its subsidiaries including PBSd, is suing Citizens Bank because the bank “should have known on its face that Morris did not have authority to endorse PBS’s signature and did not have authority to receive the monies,” FIC alleges in the court document.

PBSd recovered the funds through its FIC policy, PBSd co-presidents Andrea Downing and David Bernstein told public television executives in an email Wednesday. The email said the revenues “were vendor payments intended for Public Media Distribution.”

Those vendors include retail outlets and other partners who sell PBSd products such as videos and DVDs, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who declined to be identified due to the ongoing investigation.

FIC is asking for $2 million, plus investigative costs, pre-judgment and post-judgment interest, court costs and “any other remedy” the court may decide.

The story was first reported Thursday by the Boston Globe.

FIC was granted a request Wednesday to seal the complaint, redacting the names of both PBS and Morris. The policyholder, PBS, “requested that its identity remain confidential for purposes of court filings,” the document said.

PBS declined comment to Current on the suit. PBSd issued a public statement saying it could not comment due to “current law enforcement activity regarding this issue.” A spokesperson for WGBH also declined comment to Current.

PBS and WGBH created PBSd, a separate legal entity with its own management and governance, in December 2008. PBS owns 60 percent interest, and WGBH, 40 percent. PBSd manages home-video and digital sales of a large trove of public television content, including Masterpiece’s lucrative Downton Abbey franchise. PBS closed fiscal year 2013 with an extra $24.5 million due in large part to PBSd’s Downton deals.

PBSd had profits of $48.7 million in 2012, according to tax documents.