A former general manager at KNME filed a lawsuit last week claiming the University terminated her for asking too many questions about why the station was missing more than $4 million.
The plaintiff, Joanne Bachmann, claims that starting in 1992 UNM funneled millions of dollars from federal agencies and donors intended for the public TV station. She is seeking awards for damages, legal-service costs through the Whistleblower Protection Act and to retain her UNM position.
In disputing Bachmann’s claims, University Legal Counsel said it will “vigorously defend” the institution.
Through an internal review ordered by her KNME bosses, Bachmann found UNM had been retaining interest on balances of grants awarded to the station and that the University had been charging KNME for utilities and custodial expenses, even though UNM was receiving state money to cover those costs, the lawsuit said.
Through those practices, the University retained more than $2 million that should have gone to the station, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claims then-acting President David Harris signed an agreement to redistribute $2.3 million of federal stimulus dollars set aside to help KNME with the digital television transition to other areas within the University for “the political benefit of UNM.”
Harris declined comment Monday.
The money has not been returned to KNME, according to the lawsuit.
The University didn’t address the claims, but denied it retaliated against Bachmann.
“Ms. Bachmannn’s reported concerns were fully and adequately addressed by the University,” University Counsel said in a statement. “Decisions regarding Ms. Bachmannn’s continued employment at KNME were driven exclusively by legitimate and independent management considerations.”
The University claimed Bachmann was fired because of a “continued decline in our economic situation,” according to the lawsuit.
Bachmann began working at KNME in 2001 as a campaign manager responsible for fundraising. That year, UNM reported the station had an operating deficit of $750,000. The University tried to help.
“UNM created a ‘loan’ to KNME in the Physical Plant Department financial accounts and set up a schedule for repayment from KNME net operating funds as of the end of each fiscal year,” the lawsuit said.
At the same time, Bachmann was asked to conduct an internal review of the station’s finances. Soon after, she said she learned UNM was funneling cash from KNME for at least 10 years.
She asked UNM about the money in 2001, but the University didn’t stop funneling money for utilities and custodial expenses and retaining interests on balances of grants until 2004, “At which time it had already extracted approximately $400,000 in ‘loan’ payments from KNME accounts. None of the funds was ever returned to the station,” according to the lawsuit.
Bachmann claimed UNM continued to take money from the station in various ways.
In 2004, voters approved a $2.3 million general obligation bond to fund KNME’s upgrades of its public television equipment to digital conversion. The Federal Communications Commission mandated the digital switch.
Bond funds became available in 2005, and station managers bought equipment, according to the lawsuit. They submitted invoices for reimbursement from the bond funds.
In 2006, Harris signed the agreement that would redistribute the bonds. This denied reimbursement for equipment purchased and left KNME $1.2 million in the hole.
The administration forced KNME to pay the reimbursement balance out of its own pocket.
“UNM unilaterally removed $1.2 million from a KNME endowment to cover the non-reimbursed expenditures resulting from the loss of the bond funds,” the lawsuit states.
At this point, Bachmann and members of KNME’s advisory board expressed concerns about the misuse of public funds. UNM retaliated by removing three of the board members, the lawsuit said.
But a University Counsel statement said UNM abides by the Whistleblower Protection Act, which prohibits retaliation against those with issues against the University.
In 2007, KNME started reforming the process for depositing station fundraising proceeds. Through the change, it learned UNM had several charge-backs to KNME accounts, resulting in a loss of funds, “likely in the thousands of dollars to the station along with discrepancies in KNME donor records,” the lawsuit said.
Bachmann filed an unresolved discrepancy with Steve Beffort, the former vice president of Institutional Support Services. He assigned an ISS staff member to work with Bachmann and determine the reason for the charge-backs. The issues remained unresolved.
Bachmann was named general manager at KNME in 2008. At the same time, the station filed a final financial report with the FCC about equipment purchased to complete the digital conversion.
Bachmann was then ordered by her supervisor, M.K. (Polly) Anderson, to drop the matter about discrepancies involving charge-backs and was told to “pay attention to fundraising,” the lawsuit said.
Bachmann persisted about the matter. Later, she received a “needs improvement” annual performance review, the lawsuit said.
In 2009, Bachmann again went to Anderson and questioned a $100,000 discrepancy between donor records and UNM deposits of KNME donor funds reported in the 2008 audit.
Anderson didn’t pay attention to Bachmann’s claims, the lawsuit said, so she wrote a letter to Anderson’s supervisor at ISS outlining her concerns. Bachmann didn’t get a response to the memo, the lawsuit said.
Bachmann said she experienced four months of retaliation from the University — from reprimanding her without basis to trying to undercut her authority over her staff. She was terminated September 2009, according to the lawsuit.