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IPR News

Fired TCFF employee weighs in on Michael Moore's claims

Michael Moore poses in front of the State Theatre in Traverse City at a past film festival.
Filmmaker and Festival Founder Michael Moore

Controversy surrounding the Traverse City Film Festival continues.  

In an email sent to the public Sunday night, founder Michael Moore alleges that an unnamed employee misused more than $250,000.

He says the film festival had a particularly bad year in 2017 and in-part blames that employee. He says that employee was later terminated.

That unnamed employee emphatically denies any wrongdoing and says Moore is hiding facts from the public.

In his Annual Traverse City Film Festival Report, Moore writes, "In December 2017, our organization (TCFF) learned that an employee directed the use of $198,020 of temporarily restricted funds without board authorization or approval. ... In addition, monies were raised and paid out of the organization in the amount of $64,900 for the benefit of a community member outside the scope of the organization's charitable purpose.”

Moore says that fundraising effort and funds dispersal was done without approval from the board of directors, and the involved employee was fired.

While Moore stopped short of naming the employee, in a written statement obtained by IPR, former TCFF Executive Director Deb Lake says Moore is referring to her.

“While I appreciate Mr. Moore’s cagey reference to an “unnamed employee,” it is clear, based on his statements, that the unnamed employee is me,” writes Lake. “Mr. Moore’s allegation that $198,020 of temporarily restricted funds were used by me in my position as the former Executive Director of the Traverse City Film Festival is correct. The funds were used to pay TCFF’s bills because the TCFF was faced with a budget shortfall and general lack of funds in 2017.”

Lake says the festival’s financial circumstances were so severe that she acted to ensure that regular operations could continue and that staff would remain employed. 

“TCFF was out of money, and I did what I had to do as executive director to keep it alive,” she writes. “The use of those funds to pay TCFF bills was not a violation of TCFF policy or procedure, and I stand by my decision." 

Community fundraiser allegations

As for Moore’s allegation that nearly $64,900 went to a community member through an unauthorized fundraiser, Deb Lake says the claim is “demonstrably false.” 

Lars Kelto was a festival volunteer since 2006 and was an IT contractor for the State Theatre. When he died unexpectedly in 2017, Lake says she spoke to Moore and the president of the TCFF Board of Directors about setting up a way for community members to donate to the Kelto family.

“He [Moore] approved this request saying, ‘Of course,’” she writes. “He then sent an email to TCFF supporters and TCFF board members on July 8, 2017 containing a link to make donations to the Kelto family.”

Lake says all the donations received by the TCFF for the Kelto family were provided to the family. 

Michael Moore says the TCFF has spoken to the Grand Traverse County Prosecutor’s Office, and the festival’s attorneys are also assessing other potential civil actions. In the meantime, Moore writes the TCFF board “has instituted stricter oversight and made serious corrections in our accountability to ensure that this never happens again.”

Deb Lake, says she doesn't want to harm the festival's reputation, but she is currently consulting her legal team to determine whether Mr. Moore’s statements are defamatory.

She writes, “if such legal remedy is necessary, I look forward to disclosing the truth of what happened in 2016 and 2017 in a forum in which all of the facts may come to light, including the way the TCFF board of directors functioned prior to my departure, and Mr. Moore's role in that system of operation.”