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Former access TV director accused of theft
Warrant issued for John Villarreal's arrest.

AMERICAN-STATESMAN | February 03, 2006
By Steven Kreytak, Sarah Coppola

Alex Jones & Infowars.com were the first to launch an investigation on corruption at Austin's local cable access station, ACTV.

Over a year ago we discovered a move by managemant of ACTV to restrict free speech. We conducted our own investigation and covertly supplied the district attorney's office with much of their case.

We began our investigation simply to prove that members of the management were attempting to violate the charter of Access Television. What we found was much bigger and much worse.

I cannot talk about much of what I know because it might aid others who are clearly involved in evading prosecution.

We were getting ready to break our silence because it looked as though the police were never going to move, but now they are, and for that the district attorney, the city of austin and the police department need to be commended. This is what they are supposed to be doing, not running warrantless checkpoints on Austin roads.

An arrest warrant has been issued for the former director of Austin's community access cable TV stations, who is accused of stealing more than $350,000 from the city-supported nonprofit.

John Villarreal, 51, is wanted for aggregated theft, a first-degree felony punishable by five years to life in prison. According to court documents filed late Wednesday, Villarreal stole the money by making 94 unauthorized withdrawals from the Austin Community Access Center's accounts from January 2000 to September 2004.

Villarreal had not been arrested late Thursday and could not be reached for comment. His lawyer also could not be reached for comment.

Prosecutors said no one else at the nonprofit is suspected of wrongdoing.

The center ran the city's cable access channels for three decades before losing the $617,000-a-year contract last year.

Those channels — 10, 11 and 16 on Time Warner and Grande Communications cable in Austin — feature citizen programming, including religious services, late-night rap videos and footage of protests as activists rail against the war in Iraq.

The court records said Villarreal was hired in December 1993 as the center's fiscal officer and was promoted to executive director in 1999. In September 2004, a producer at the center reported financial irregularities to city auditors, the records said.

"Board member Sharon Brady stated that one of the ACAC accounts should have had a balance of $36,000 but that Villarreal had reported a balance of only $3,000," according to the records. "Brady became suspicious after she asked Villarreal several times for a more detailed accounting of the bank accounts and he failed to provide one."

The city auditor's office began an investigation, and Villarreal resigned in December 2004. The next month, city auditors reported the suspected embezzlement to Austin police, who sought help from the white collar crime unit at the Travis County district attorney's office, the records said.

Investigators learned that the access station at one time hired an accounting firm to prepare annual audit reports to the city, but the firm stopped doing the reports in 1995, according to the records.

Villarreal, who was in charge of submitting annual audits after that, is accused of preparing and submitting at least one audit — in 2003 — that he represented to be from the accounting firm. That audit report contained bogus numbers, the records said.

Villarreal is accused of withdrawing $45,943 in cash from the nonprofit's accounts and also diverting $308,577 into his personal bank accounts, according to court papers. It is unclear what happened to the money.

Assistant District Attorney Patty Robertson, chief of the office's white collar crime unit, said the charges against Villarreal end the investigation.

The charge caps a rocky couple of years at the city's public-access channels. The board endured steady criticism from producers about the stations' content and future, and several board members resigned after the city and district attorney began investigating Villarreal.

After a standard contract rebidding last year, the city hired a new management group, Public Access Community Television.

Linda Litowsky, co-director of the new group, said it has hired an independent bookkeeper and will hire an independent public accountant to audit its books.

Public Access Community Television also has a six-member board that includes former longtime City Council Member Jackie Goodman, Litowsky said.

Austin's chief financial officer, John Stephens, said the city's contract with the public-access stations is one of a few in which the city provides most or all of a nonprofit's operating budget. The city funds part of the budgets of several other nonprofit groups, including 55 social-service agencies, he said.

Stephens said the city isn't finished negotiating the $617,500 contract, but it will include tougher provisions such as requiring the group to submit monthly reconciled bank statements.

"There will be a better trail for us to track the money," he said.


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