By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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By Allison Babka
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Unlike other stations in the University of Missouri system, KWMU also benefits from the support of a separate fundraising arm, Friends of KWMU. Last year the nonprofit Friends Board provided the station with more than $1.6 million in funds collected during on-air pledge drives.
Attorney and microbrew owner Tom Schlafly, a board member and major underwriter of the station, describes Friends of KWMU as akin to a booster club that lacks any oversight over the station. "I've been on other boards like KETC (Channel 9) and KDHX (88.1 FM) that are governing boards," says Schlafly. "Friends of KWMU is not that way."
Nonetheless, Schlafly remains a champion of the station and says he knows nothing of staff complaints about Wente. "I don't know about her behavior," says Schlafly. "I like the product and support the station, but it doesn't surprise me that there are politics involved behind the scenes."
Ditto the response from attorney Ken Suelthaus, who served as president of the Friends Board from 2003 to 2004. "I think there are going to be malcontents in any organization," says Suelthaus. "Patty has been there quite a while, and it takes a big effort to keep a station like that going."
Besides serving as ambassadors to the station, the Friends Board also furnishes Wente with a credit card with a $15,000 per month spending limit. Billing records obtained though a Sunshine Law request reveal that the KWMU manager spares few expenses when it comes to wining and dining on behalf of the station.
In recent years Wente has picked up $700 tabs at Busch's Grove, $400 bills at Cardwell's at the Plaza and dozens of $100-plus receipts at some other fine St. Louis-area restaurants. When she travels on station business, Wente uses the Friends Board credit card to stay in boutique hotels such as the W in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza.
Charges to clothing stores and nail salons have also found their way onto Wente's Friends of KWMU credit card. In March 2007 Wente went so far as to use the credit card to finance a trip to Southern California in which she rang up $10,000 in bills at the luxurious Beverly Wilshire Hotel and The Spa Resort in Palm Springs. University records show Wente repaid the Friends Board a few months later in June 2007.
Liz Green, president of Friends of KWMU, says she and fellow directors have never so much as raised an eyebrow at the way Wente uses the card. She maintains that Wente always repays the board for personal expenses and says the four-star hotels and fancy meals are just a cost of doing business.
"When you travel to someplace like Washington, D.C., it's sometimes very difficult to find a hotel that most people would consider reasonable," comments Green. "And when someone like Diane Rehm comes to St. Louis, where are you going to have her stay and eat?" Besides, she adds, all of KWMU's audits have been "sound, good and perfect."
Apparently, Green never received the letter that KWMU's most recent auditor sent the University of Missouri's Board of Curators. The five-page document dated January 9, 2008, spells out a number of internal control deficiencies with the station's accounting practices, including the failure of KWMU management to provide receipts that prove the credit card was used for legitimate station business.
"The expense documentation that we examined for the Friends of KWMU company credit card was lacking approval and support of business purpose," noted the auditors. "At a minimum, documentation should include the date and time of expense, expense amount, and business purpose for the expense."
The auditors were so alarmed by the use of the credit card for personal expenses that they suggested all future station expenses be made through the university's voucher system and not the Friends of KWMU credit card.
Left unanswered in the letter was a question on the minds of many KWMU staffers.
"Why does a woman who earns $118,000 need to place personal items on the station credit card?" asks a station employee. "The answer, of course, is because she can get away with it. She's accountable to no one."
Since it first hit the airwaves in 1972, KWMU has operated out of the same bunker-like building on the UMSL campus that it shares with the university's criminology department and sundry professors' offices. These days, the accommodations are so tight that KWMU was forced to attach a mobile home next to its office to house its ever-growing staff.
If it becomes a reality, Patty Wente's legacy at KWMU will be the station's $12 million new headquarters. Featuring a swooping steel-and-glass exterior, the station will include state-of-the-art studios and an on-site theater for hosting live shows.
And while few KWMU employees deny that the station is in desperate need of new office space, many have begun to question Wente's track record in raising funds for the building. After five years of quietly soliciting money for the project, KWMU has raised $7 million in pledges but needs another $5 million to bring the building to fruition.
Meanwhile, KWMU employees worry that the station is spending money on the campaign almost as quickly as it is collects funds. From 2003 to 2006, KWMU paid two separate consultants more than $100,000 to assist with the fundraising for the project.