CPB Faces Questions about CEO Compensation

The fallout keeps coming in the scandal that has shaken the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Recent audits of the CPB suggest the corporation may have sought to get around the law in paying two past chief executive officers.

By law, CPB executives are not supposed to be paid more than U.S. Cabinet secretaries — these days, about $180,000. But in 2000, CPB board members liked CEO Robert Coonrod so much that they figured out a way to pay him more.

"The Board was seeking to retain the expertise of a valuable, experienced employee," says Michael Levy, spokesman for the CPB.

The CPB is a private, not-for-profit company set up by Congress in 1967. It relies exclusively on federal dollars to subsidize PBS and NPR member stations and provide seed money for some of their programs.

Coonrod tells NPR he had been ready to move on when his first CEO contract expired in 2000. So he was offered what's called "deferred compensation" above his annual salary -– ultimately $174,000 -– to stick around.

"As far as everybody knew then, and I think everybody knows now, it's entirely appropriate to provide deferred compensation — there's nothing inappropriate about that," Coonrod says.

But new financial rules put that arrangement out of bounds. So in 2002, CPB agreed to sign Coonrod to a four-year consulting contract worth more than $450,000. The contract would kick in after he retired two years later. Coonrod says he still provides important work to CPB.

"I think I more than fulfill the requirements of the consulting agreement," he says.

Coonrod says there was no effort to conceal the deal — but there is no evidence of it in the corporation's publicly available tax documents.

In July 2004, Coonrod's protege, Kathleen Cox, succeeded him. But CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson wanted to replace Cox with Patricia Harrison, a State Department official and former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. That switch helped prompt an inspector general's investigation into complaints of illegal partisan politics.

Cox was ousted three months before the end of her one-year contract.

Although her annual salary is listed as more than $170,000, Cox was promised $614,000 in salary, benefits and unused leave time — though the full amount hasn't been paid. Inspector General Kenneth Konz said the package was structured to avoid outside scrutiny.

Kenneth Tomlinson was forced out after the board reviewed Konz's report. Tomlinson and former CPB board chairman, Frank Cruz, did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did current the chairwoman, Cheryl Halpern.

Over the summer, Halpern had requested an audit from PriceWaterhouseCooper that revealed the scope of the compensation given to Coonrod.

Chellie Pingree, head of the liberal watchdog group Common Cause, says the CPB often appears to be operating without accountability.

"It seems every time you peel back another layer here, you find potential inappropriate compensation, questionable decisions, lack of oversight," Pingree says. "It's almost as though each day brings another story that we didn't want to hear about what was going on."

The payments to both Robert Coonrod and Kathleen Cox raise big questions, Pingree says.

"Was the law followed in Robert Coonrod's case in that he was being paid more than was allowable under the law?" Pingree asks. "When you look at Kathleen Cox, was she paid an excessive amount of money to hasten the departure — or keep her quiet?"

Cox's lawyer, Debra Katz, has said Cox is legally entitled to the full $614,000.

Michael Levy, the CPB spokesman, declined comment on Cox, saying it is a confidential personnel matter. But Levy said the agreement with Coonrod passed muster with accounting and legal advisers.

The PriceWaterhouseCooper audit has not yet been released, as the CPB asked for some of its findings to be revised.

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