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As a way to entice those listeners to call in to the station, KWMU often uses "challenge grants" in which underwriters match listener donations with additional gifts. A typical challenge grant, for example, might have a business pledge up to $5,000 in matching funds during a one- or two-hour slot during the pledge drive.
But many of the challenge grants from underwriters simply did not exist, says Swartz. Instead, KWMU presented money that the underwriters already paid for advertising as new gifts made specifically for the challenge grant.
"It was like finding out that Santa Claus didn't exist," posits the 34-year-old Swartz. "We'd have grandmas calling into the station to ask if the challenge grant was still on the table. Meanwhile, it was all bogus. There was no challenge grant. The money was already spent for underwriting."
Swartz says many underwriters unwittingly went along with the ruse, but others openly questioned the practice. "They'd ask, 'Wait a second, does this mean I owe the station another $5,000?'" recalls Swartz. "We were supposed to tell them not to worry. We were simply 'leveraging' their underwriting."
By October 2005 Swartz had grown so frustrated with the deceptive challenge grants that she scheduled a meeting with UMSL's Bob Samples. It was then that she discovered that other station employees had also complained to university officials about the challenge grants, only to have their concerns ignored.
Hillary Wicai Viers, a former KWMU reporter who left the station in 2003 for a job with American Public Media's Marketplace, confirms that prior to her departure she met with Chancellor George to discuss the challenge grants and Wente's use of the station's staff for personal projects. The challenge grants were also mentioned in the 2004 anonymous letter to the chancellor. Finally, the topic also surfaced in a letter Kathleen Unwin — KWMU's former corporate accounts manager — sent to the university upon her resignation in 2003.
Unwin, who now works as a public broadcasting consultant, says the challenge grants were a major factor in her decision to leave KWMU. "Raising funds in this manner is absolutely not the norm in public broadcasting, and it was no secret that getting the practice changed was my number-one concern and priority," says Unwin.
"In September 2003 I wrote a detailed exit strategy to Ms. Wente to get it in writing and on the table. When I kept raising the flag, the relationship became more and more tense. Ultimately, I decided the stress of the situation was not worth it any longer."
In her meeting with Samples, Swartz says the UMSL spokesman nonchalantly mentioned that the university had "heard rumblings" in the past about the challenge grants. "When I asked him how it wasn't fraudulent, he bristled," remembers Swartz. "He referred to the challenge grants as being perhaps 'misleading,' but not fraudulent."
Swartz later recruited her husband, St. Louis attorney Matt Ghio, to look into the challenge grants. He, too, questioned their legality and soon enough produced Missouri Revised Statute 407.020, which expressly prohibits "deception and false pretense" in the solicitation of funds for charitable purposes such as KWMU.
Swartz says that it was only when she mailed Samples a copy of the law that the university finally took action.
Today, Samples downplays the debate surrounding the challenge grants and stops short of calling them bogus or even misleading. "The listener may have believed that if they gave $40, someone else, such as business or private donor, was also going to pull $40 out of their pocket, whereas that money was already committed to the station," says Samples. "I discussed it with a few people and the general feeling was that it gave the wrong impression. So we talked to Patty and had it changed."
The Bad Apple
Patty Wente's exploits extend far beyond St. Louis.
"Speaking for myself, I've observed her to seem inebriated or under the influence when she's addressed the NPR board," notes Mark Vogelzang, president of Vermont Public Radio and member of the NPR board of directors. "What's most dismaying is that her behavior is such a glaring contradiction to what we expect in public radio."
Vogelzang says he's heard directly from former KWMU staffers about her screaming and belittling the staff but says it's not NPR's job to get involved with station management. "We're not the licensee," says Vogelzang. "Direct control of the station lies with the university, and viewing it from afar, it seems they've been remiss in not addressing the personnel problems at KWMU."
In recent years, incidents within Wente's personal life have also caused alarm. In November 2005 a stalking petition for order of protection was filed against her in St. Charles County following the drowning of her former boyfriend, Alan Ritter. Wente had helped Ritter get a job at UMSL as a construction manager in 2003.
The pair dated off and on until 2004, when Ritter married another woman. According to court documents, though, it was Wente who played the part of the bereaved widow — calling Ritter's family and friends and demanding to have a private viewing of the body. By late November, Wente's hysterics were enough for Ritter's actual widow, Ann Ritter, to file an order of protection. The case was dismissed prior to a scheduled hearing in January 2006.
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