Board leaders of WTVP in Peoria, Ill., are preparing to slash the public TV station’s budget by $1.5 million following disclosures of financial improprieties.
During a meeting Tuesday, Board Chair Andrew Rand didn’t assign responsibility or describe the cause of the fiscal mismanagement. But the board of the Illinois Valley Public Telecommunications Corporation, the community licensee of WTVP, took steps to increase its oversight of the station, according to a news release announcing that the executive committee was authorized to supervise day-to-day management of the station.
The board’s intervention follows the death of Lesley Matuszak, CEO of WTVP since 2019, who was found dead in her home on Sept. 28, one day after she resigned from her job, according to local news accounts. She was 66, according to an obituary. The local CBS affiliate reported that Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood believes no foul play was involved in Matuszak’s death. The obituary and local news accounts did not disclose a cause of death.
Julie Sanders, previously director of marketing and community relations, is managing the station on an interim basis.
At the meeting Tuesday, the board disclosed that the $1.5 million in cuts, which will reduce WTVP’s budget by about 30%, are necessary to stabilize the station to break-even spending, according to reporting from Peoria-based NPR affiliate WCBU. The goal is to reduce spending to fiscal year 2019 levels, when WTVP’s annual budget was $3.5 million, Rand said.
Rand told Current in an email that “We will begin to put our new budget plan to work this week.”
Of the fiscal mismanagement at WTVP, Rand said during the meeting that the executive committee had “accumulated workpapers, documents and other financial records that provide insight into expenditures and uses of funds of WTVP that were questionable, unauthorized or improper,” according to WCBU’s report. “We believe such expenditures have been stopped and are closely reviewing every proposed or recurring expense the station makes.”
The board authorized the executive committee to step up its oversight of WTVP’s management after the station’s audit for FY23, performed by CliftonLarsonAllen, flagged more than 40 issues, according to local reports. The audit hasn’t been released publicly, though Sanders told WCBU it will eventually be posted with public files on the station’s website.
“We are working on completing our 2023 audit at this time,” Rand said in a statement to Current. “With the departure of our director of finance, the process is taking longer than usual.”
A WTVP staff meeting was scheduled for Wednesday morning in order to “be as frank as possible” with employees, according to Rand’s comments at the Tuesday board meeting.
Steep financial decline
In coverage of Matuszak’s death, local news organizations described her as a prominent philanthropist who had previously led the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Peoria and co-founded the Greater Peoria Honor Flight. But social media networks, particularly the Peoria subreddit, were abuzz with speculation about Matuszak’s resignation and the recent departure of Lin McLaughlin, former director of finance and human relations.
In a Tuesday news release shared with Current, WTVP said the board had reviewed financial reports that show WTVP lost more than $520,000 in fiscal year 2022 and “a reduction in cash from operating activities over” $740,000.
Illinois Valley Public Telecommunications Corporation’s IRS Form 990 for FY22, the most recent available, said the station ran a deficit of nearly $408,000, though in FY21 the organization racked up a surplus of nearly $376,000. Matuszak’s annual salary was $176,084, according to the tax filing, and she received an estimated $26,000 in other compensation.
According to minutes from a Sept. 6 special board meeting released Wednesday, WTVP was in danger of running out of money this summer until it liquidated $320,000 worth of investments and accessed $100,000 in credit lines from PNC Bank.
The Board Treasurer Helen Barrick and the executive committee didn’t learn about the financial emergency until they received draft financial statements, according to the minutes. Barrick told the board that WTVP would have run a $45,000 deficit at the end of July without the cash infusion.
In April, then-CEO Matuszak told the board that the station would end FY22 with a $460,000 cash surplus, according to Barrick’s remarks at the special meeting. Barrick told the board that the surplus was expected to be approximately $160,000.
At the special meeting, Rand appointed Vice Chair Sid Ruckriegel to work with Matuszak as the board’s “supervising representative” to “reverse the negative cash flow.” Barrick was assigned to work alongside Matuszak, CliftonLarsonAllen and the former director of finance to “to gain a better understanding of WTVP’s expense structure.”
Acquisition of ‘Peoria Magazine’
The board also discussed the performance of Peoria Magazine during its Sept. 6 special meeting. Matuszak led WTVP’s acquisition of the magazine and other businesses operated by Central Illinois Business Publishers in 2021.
When board member Andrew Chambers asked during the special meeting if the magazine “made any money,” Matuszak said it made $750,000, according to the minutes. Treasurer Barrick replied that it grossed $750,000. The minutes don’t clarify whether the costs of producing and publishing the magazine generated net revenues but go on to note that Matuszak agreed to “work closely” with Rand, Barrick and Ruckriegel to “reduce the chronic operating losses.”
In a 2021 interview, Matuszak told Current that Chicago Public Media’s merger with the Chicago Sun-Times inspired her to pursue acquisition of the magazine. “When I heard about [WBEZ] taking over the Chicago Sun-Times, my mind went crazy with ideas,” she said.
The transaction had been financed by angel investors, she added. “I’ve got an angel or two in my back pocket. … That’s just how I operate,” she said. Matuszak told Current that she did not draw from the station’s general membership fund to complete the transaction.
The next full board meeting of the Illinois Valley Public Telecommunications Corporation is Dec. 12. The executive committee meets on Dec. 7 and the development committee will meet Dec. 11.