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Friday, June 27, 2014

POULTRY IN MOTION: How Traverse City's Chicken-S**t Media Deliberately Missed The Area's Biggest News Story In Years

Why does a chicken cross the road?

Because it's not a media watchdog, that's why!

The news media's role as watchdog is vital in smaller communities, especially when exposing organizations with a long-standing culture of corruption. I figured I'd get a backlash for my reporting on Steven Ingersoll and the Grand Traverse Academy, which was far more aggressive than most small-town papers are willing to stomach. 

And I did.

In truth, it appears that many people likely had known something wasn't right. But not many were willing to do anything about it—until this blog started pushing the issue. 

Here's what I did: I started by asking tough questions that no one else asked. 

The first one centered on the allegation in Steven Ingersoll's federal indictment that claimed Ingersoll had used some of the nearly $1.0 million dollars he'd diverted from a bank loan to "repay an indebtedness to the Grand Traverse Academy".

Knowing that I likely wouldn't be able to find the evidence the feds had developed, I still looked to see if I could find why Ingersoll was "indebted" to the Academy.

I didn't find my answer. Instead, I found the story of the year—hiding in plain sight, and nestled within the pages of the Grand Traverse Academy's 2013 financial audit report.

The bombshell exploded off the pages of the audit report, which detailed how Steven Ingersoll had overpaid himself nearly $2.5 million dollars—of taxpayer money—and "withheld repayment".

The certified public accounting firm Dennis, Gartland & Niergarth raised several troubling internal financial control and compliance issues in its 2013 audit report to the Academy.

But the Academy Board did nothing—except provide Ingersoll with a method to "work off" his nearly $2.5 million dollar debt by “partially reducing cash transfers for future management fees through June 2016”. 

Although the audit report was publicly available online for anyone who cared to look for it, it appears that the Academy Board did not report the potential fraud to the Michigan Department of Education as required by law.

I published my first story three days after Ingersoll's indictment was unsealed and revealed what I believed to be at the very least a massive misappropriation of public funds.

The next day, I sent an email to Academy spokesperson, attorney Doug Bishop, asking for a statement on the allegations I'd published in the previous day's story. Even though I published the email on my blog, I never received a response from Bishop.

Although the Traverse City Record-Eagle published a story on April 11 about Ingersoll's indictment, and finally followed up with a short piece on the Grand Traverse Academy's missing millions on April 26, it's clear that, like Sergeant Frank Drebin in the spoof "Naked Gun", its editorial management staff feels there's "nothing to see here...move along!"

But there was ample opportunity for follow up—and not just by the newspaper.

For example, the Record-Eagle's April 11 story indicated Bishop and Grand Traverse Academy Board President Brad Habermehl were not singing from the same hymnal when discussing Ingersoll's departure as the Academy's management provider. 

While a quote attributed to Bishop indicated that Ingersoll "probably thought his situation might be a distraction",  Habermehl claimed instead that "declining MEAP scores prompted board members' decision to leave Smart Schools, not because of anything related to Ingersoll's legal woes."

Nothing to see here...move along!

Did everyone miss that...or were they just repeating "la, la, la" with fingers firmly stuffed in ears?

And finally, I don't know how anyone can read Kaye Mentley's airy, dismissive statement in the April 26 Record-Eagle referring to the missing millions and not do a major spit-take: Mentley was quoted saying "she’s not concerned about the $1.6 million owed by Ingersoll and Smart Schools."

“At this time the payment schedule that was arranged has been kept,” she said.

Nothing to see here...move along! 

Why was Mentley, formerly employed by Steven Ingersoll's Smart Schools, representing the Academy?  

Shouldn't an Academy Board member—with a fiduciary duty to put the public's interest before their own have fielded those questions?

And shouldn't someone have figured out that the specious "payment schedule" mouthpiece Mentley referred to was toast on March 19 when the Academy booted Ingersoll to the curb and ushered in former Board President Mark Noss and his new management company? 

Nothing to see here...move along!   

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