When Pitt radio station staffers bounced $4,770 in checks last October, they finally realized that at least $5,000 was missing from their station account -- money they had accumulated just eight months before, according to confidential station sources.
Pitt student Allison Rowland, WPTS's station manager, had written two checks totaling $4,770 for registration and hotel rooms for she and three other student station employees to attend the annual College Music Journal Music Marathon in New York City. Says City Paper's main confidential source at WPTS (who spoke, as another staffer did, on condition of anonymity because Pitt officials had asked student employees not to talk with the press): "I'd say [the event] is one of the most useful things we do all year, because we get to see bands we play on our station and learn how to produce a better radio station."
Instead of signing up the group of WPTS student employees for the New York trip months in advance and using the official university account, as had been done in the past, Interim General Manager Tim Rensland gave to Rowland a few blank checks from a WPTS account at PNC Bank -- an account which itself circumvented Pitt rules, say station staffers, although it was opened in WPTS's name. According to station employees, Pitt requires that all student organization spending be filtered through and approved by university administrators -- in this case, Senior Administrator of Student Affairs Birney Harrigan. Unknown to Harrigan or any other Pitt official, for the past two years WPTS had controlled the PNC account, which was funded by some of its radio sponsors and profits from events.
As staffers quickly discovered after a visit with University of Pittsburgh auditors in early November, the funds WPTS counted on for promotional events and station supplies had been repeatedly overdrawn all summer.
CP's primary WPTS source says the account was created to bypass the approval process needed to get funds from the university's official account, as well as to keep some money liquid for small station purchases. Rensland (a full-time administrative staffer paid by the university) and Rowland (a part-time student employee paid by university stipend) both had their names on the account.
Rensland, in his early 20s, worked for WPTS first as a college student, both as an engineer and on the air. After leaving Pitt, Rensland continued to work at the station, first as a volunteer, then as assistant general manager for half a year until his seven-month, interim-GM position began in March 2003, according to station sources. Altogether, he was involved with WPTS for about five years. Allison Rowland began her WPTS stint in the fall of 2001.
Hired by WPTS before the PNC account was created, CP's student employee source says the account was mostly unused before Rensland's term as general manager began in March. Rensland's predecessor (also an interim GM) had written checks from this account to pay for small purchases like office supplies and food for staff meetings, says the staffer.
As PNC Bank records show, at least by August someone used the PNC account's ATM/check card to eat through thousands of dollars in $20 to $70 increments from at least through October 2003. Several sources inside WPTS claim that nobody had used the ATM card before April.
The account had more than $8,000 in March 2003, CO's main station source recalls. According to PNC bank records, by the time Rowland received calls from CMJ officials after the New York trip, complaining about bounced checks, the station's PNC account was overdrawn by $1,832.42. (The $3,000 check for hotel accommodations -- the majority of Rowland's $4,770 payment for CMJ, had not yet been processed by the end of October.)
PNC's "Account Transaction Detail Report" from August to October 2003 shows 20 small-increment withdrawals from ATMs totaling $781.16. Many of these withdrawals came from Squirrel Hill ATMs. The card was even used twice at bars -- Murray Avenue Grill and Lot 17.
During these three months, these same PNC records show, the account was constantly overdrawn, eliciting eight $32.50 fees, including three in a single day. The account was used for WPTS business during those months as well: Two sponsors' checks were deposited, totaling $1,602, and $864.50 in checks was spent to pay student wages. Those checks were written by Rensland, says CP's main WPTS source.
The source also says there is no evidence that the missing $5,000 ever funded anything for WPTS. In 2003, before the PNC account was found empty in early November, WPTS held one event over the summer and two in the fall, costing about $1,100 in total, which was paid through WPTS's official university account, says the source. WPTS held several other concerts over the 2003 spring term, but they were also funded by the university account. No new equipment or CDs were purchased for the station during that time, he adds.
Rensland, reached at his Pittsburgh suburban residence, would not comment, and did not return nine follow-up calls. His brother, Mike Rensland, who still works at the station, did not return a phone inquiry.
WPTS staffers also say WPTS is still receiving past-due bills and only recently managed to pay students their monthly stipends owed from September 2003.
Although at the time student employees were unaware of any missing money, by October they say they were forced to perform many of the general manager's duties while seeing Rensland in the office less and less. They wrote contracts, talked to businesses, filled out purchase requisites and wrote memos.
"We [WPTS student employees] were all just worried because we didn't have a [professional] representative with us from 9 to 5 every day," says CP's main staff source. "It was always nerve-wracking when we knew the university wanted to work with someone experienced and older. We were students running the station."
By mid-November, WPTS student workers voiced fears for the station. "We thought that if someone was taking this money, what was going to stop them from taking portable broadcast equipment?" says the source. Students were concerned about several unsecured rooms and many expensive pieces of small equipment, such as speakers, CD mixers and microphones. For a week and a half before Thanksgiving, several students slept in the station lobby in pairs every night. One student would awkwardly ball up on the couch while the other "would sleep in a chair, prop their feet up and have some of the most uncomfortable sleep in their life," says the student employee, who took on a few of these midnight shifts.
Two days before Thanksgiving, students believe Rensland was put on administrative leave. In any event, he hasn't returned to duty. Birney Harrigan, faculty supervisor of WPTS, stepped in as a sort of interim interim general manager. The WPTS staff functioned without a full-time general manager for the next two and a half months, forcing the student employees to devote substantially more hours to work normally done by the station's professional staff. A new general manager took office on Feb. 16.
No one at the university would comment on the situation.
"We have not confirmed that [Rensland] was fired," says Pitt spokesperson Robert Hill -- despite the hiring of a new GM. "Personnel matters are confidential. That's a long-standing policy of the university."
Prior to Feb. 16, Harrigan had confirmed the search for Rensland's replacement, but said she could not comment further on the search, or on Rensland. When asked about Rensland, the missing funds and a possible investigation, John Elliot, the university's internal audit director, says, "I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
Pitt Police Commander Kathy Schreiber says, "Any ongoing investigations can't be discussed."
More than a new GM, students who work at the station want their money back, and they want to see the guilty party charged, says the main staffer who spoke to CP.
"I feel like we've been totally left out in the cold," adds a second WPTS staffer. "No one will tell us what's going on, not anymore. I really don't think [Pitt] will do anything to get the money back. I think they just want to slide it under the table."
CP's main staff source contends that at first the university took an active role investigating the issue, but now "it seems to me like they have taken all the evidence of the theft, given it to one department that sits high atop the Cathedral of Learning, and that's where it will stay."