SPECIAL REPORT: City workers warned that Parks & Rec Department was spinning out of control

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJune 26, 2011 

  • Mayor Teresa Tomlinson discusses the Parks and Recreation Department audit

    Columbus Parks and Recreation employees running the elite Georgia Blazers basketball team mixed department funds with grants from Nike in a private bank account opened under the city’s tax-exempt identification number and took about $120,000 in cash over three years from that account. They also drafted workers paid through other Parks and Rec divisions and commandeered city vehicles to pick up out-of town players.

    In May 2010, after the Ledger-Enquirer reported the findings of a city audit, police launched an investigation of the department, which led to fired director Tony Adams (top photo, left) pleading guilty on March 10 to defrauding the city, a felony. His top lieutenant, Herman Porter (top photo, far right), pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor theft. William Fox (second photo), director of the nonprofit East Marietta Basketball Inc., who funneled Nike funds and kicked back tournament fees to Adams and Porter, also pleaded guilty to defrauding the city.

Now-public police files from the Columbus Parks and Recreation probe leading to the corruption convictions of top administrators show the issues prompting the investigation were nearly a decade old and no secret to workers inside the department.

Though City Manager Isaiah Hugley and other city leaders last year initially claimed Parks and Rec Director Tony Adams did nothing wrong in using the department’s Nike-branded elite Georgia Blazers basketball team to recruit top players regionally, police questioning current and former city workers learned warning signs of the scandal to come dated back to around 2001.

Conflicts with Parks and Rec sponsoring an elite youth team first arose when Brad Chambers directed the department from 2000 to 2002.

Pam Knight, who now teaches accounting at Columbus Tech, served as Parks and Rec’s finance manager before leaving in 2003. She told police that concerns surfaced when Chambers was in charge and Adams was the assistant director.

Even then, critics questioned whether the basketball team was part of Parks and Rec or an independent venture for which city workers volunteered. “In every act it appeared to be a Parks and Rec program,” Knight told police, “but we weren’t depositing the funds, so then it was presented to me that it was not a Parks and Rec program -- they were just volunteering their time to coach and be part of the program.”

Parents unhappy with how the program was being run met with Chambers, Adams and then-rec services manager Ray Evans, and Chambers ordered them to split the Blazers off from Parks and Rec, Knight said.

Hugley, who was then the deputy city manager, helped make the decision, she said: “That was also the agreement of the city manager, because he was involved in that, too. He was aware, I think, because some of the parents went to him and complained, above the department to the city manager’s office, because at that time Isaiah was the deputy city manager like how Lisa (Goodwin) is, and our department reported to him.”

Chambers told the Ledger-Enquirer he recalled some “confusion” with the program, but he did not recall ordering the split.

That was not a decision Hugley would have let him make alone, he said: “I remember the programs being hard to define in terms of where the lines were, what was a Parks and Rec program and what wasn’t. I don’t remember talking with a parents’ group or anything like that. And anything that would have been more than just the basic decision-making or directive, I would have had to run that past Isaiah Hugley, because he made it clear that any decisions of any consequence at all had to go through him for approval. He made that clear on numerous occasions, that I couldn’t make any more than just the basic recommendation. ... He was pretty much a hands-on manager, which is one of the reasons I left.”

Beyond its elite boys basketball team, the Blazers program had teams for girls basketball, boxing, flag football and track and field.

Like Knight, Michael Woods also remembered parents’ complaining about favoritism in the program.

Woods is a basketball coach who later split from the Blazers to run the competing Columbus Jaguars. He said parents of girl basketball players complained that they helped raise money for the Blazers, but all the resources went to the boys’ teams. The girls’ mothers confronted Adams and Ray Evans, who then held the rec services job Margaret Brown later occupied.

“Everything was going to the boys,” Woods told detectives. “One of my older team’s parents went down there and sat down with him and Ray: ‘Why is it that the boys get all this stuff and the girls don’t?’”

Such complaints were not welcome, Woods said, and Evans made that clear: “Ray said, ‘Y’all sent this lynch mob of women down there to attack us.’”

Unaudited accounts

Knight also told officers that administrators years ago questioned Parks and Rec workers’ signing onto bank accounts created by team booster clubs -- accounts the city was not tracking.

The city finance director then was Kay Love, who tried to shut down unaudited, outside accounts involving city workers, but some continued, Knight said.

Love told the Ledger-Enquirer she recalled some booster club accounts to which Parks and Rec workers were signatories, and tried to establish clear lines between what was private and what was public.

The conflict is not uncommon, said Love, who’s now city administrator for Roswell, Ga., having left Columbus in 2003. Rec workers often volunteer to support teams privately, which cities encourage, but then what’s public and private get confused.

It’s not that city workers set out to mingle public and private resources with no accountability, she said, but once it starts it tends to spin out of control.

“I think it goes to how things have like mission creep, and volunteers go ‘OK, I’ll do that,’ and then the first time they do it, it’s like, OK, well then is that their responsibility to continue to do it? And it just morphs into something maybe it was never meant to be.”

The Blazers’ account that Tony Adams and assistant Herman Porter established at CB&T in 2005 morphed into a slush fund through which they funneled more than $200,000 in public and private funds.

That fund may have been hidden from top city leaders, but talk about “the Blazers account” was common within Parks and Rec, said Brian Giffin, who worked in the athletics division before becoming operations manager at the Columbus Civic Center.

“Too many times I heard -- whenever they were looking for funding or doing this -- they said, ‘Just run it through the Blazers,’” Giffin told police.

“They” means Adams and Porter, Giffin added. “If they had to purchase something,” he said, “if they had to do travel, if they had to do anything like that: ‘Oh, we’ll just run it through the Blazers account.’”

First hired in 1993, Giffin left Parks and Rec in 2008.

Detectives also learned that the city got a warning about the Blazers’ account a year before the Parks and Rec scandal hit the headlines.

City Finance Director Pam Hodge inquired about unauthorized bank accounts bearing the city’s tax-exempt ID number in May 2009, and CB&T sent her a list with Adams’ Blazers account on it.

In a July 20, 2010, meeting with prosecutors, the police chief, the city manager and detectives, District Attorney Julia Slater asked Hodge if she’d ever heard of the Blazers account.

“Back of last year I was made aware that the senior citizen center down in south Columbus had their own account,” Hodge replied. “Somebody in Parks and Rec called and said, ‘They’re operating their own account; they’re using the city tax ID number; is that allowed?’ And I said no, they’re not allowed to do that.

“So that sparked me to ask CB&T, who’s our bank, ‘Is there anyone else that’s using the city tax ID number?’ And they sent a list. And I told them these are the ones that are authorized. And going back after this happened, the Columbus Blazer account was on that list, but at the time when I saw it, I had no earthly idea what Blazers was....”

Hodge had told police about this earlier: On June 22, 2010, she showed them emails between her and CB&T. Dated May 12, 2009, and May 14, 2009, the emails listed 13 accounts using the city’s tax ID number, and at least eight were not authorized, investigators said.

Keeping up with cash

Also in 2009, a Parks and Rec worker in her resignation letter complained about the department’s lack of accounting for the cash collected as admission to basketball tournaments, but no one followed up on that, either.

Irene Pate, once a pottery specialist in Parks and Rec’s cultural arts program, was outraged in 2008 when told she no longer could accept cash from residents enrolling in pottery classes, yet she saw that cash from rec services’ basketball tournaments was never counted, just stuffed in a box Margaret Brown collected.

Pate detailed her objections in her Jan. 20, 2009, resignation letter to supervisor Lisa Castille.

Pate wrote that while other parts of Parks and Rec struggled with budget cuts, the rec services division “has been spending money for years like water flowing through a screen door.”

Of the cash generated by basketball tournaments, she wrote:

“This cash money is kept in a little metal box that is eventually picked up at each location and taken away to where? At least we satellite studio employees can account for our incoming cash. It seems that no one holds those who handle tournament cash accountable. I continue to wonder what happens to the thousands of unaccounted dollars that get generated by basketball tournaments. … It has become increasingly difficult to watch Parks and Recreation continue to be such careless stewards of our money. If this division is so careless, one can only imagine what is going on in others.”

Pate said that in response to her resignation letter, Castille called and told her Adams wanted to talk to her. She left a message for Adams, but he never called back, Pate told the Ledger-Enquirer.

Pate’s resignation took effect April 1, 2009.

Resources diverted

It was no secret within the department that Parks and Rec resources over the years were diverted to the Blazers’ program. City workers driving city vehicles transported out-of-town players to tournaments, picked them up and took them home. The drivers said so when police questioned them. The city paid some per diems for expenses.

Yet as late as July 7, 2010, Deputy City Manager Lisa Goodwin told detectives that as far as she knew, city vehicles and drivers never were sent to get players or take them home.

In an April 28, 2011, report summarizing his findings after reviewing the police files, Internal Auditor John Redmond said that not only were city vehicles and drivers used, but that department managers directed drivers to stop recording out-of-town trips in their mileage logs:

“City-owned vans were operated to transport out-of-town players to and from Columbus for practice or tournaments. Full- and part-time employees and volunteer coaches and chaperones drove these vans, which is a violation of city policy. … Daily vehicle logs which would have readily disclosed this out-of-county travel were discontinued at the direction of Parks and Recreation Department management. Likewise, many of the drivers were not qualified by city driving courses and proper licensure to operate the vehicles, which exposed the city to unnecessary risk.”

Complaints to Hugley

Two local coaches told police they personally complained to Hugley about how Adams was operating.

One, former Carver High School coach Richard Mahone, who now coaches basketball at Phenix City’s Chattahoochee Valley Community College, said he complained years ago about Adams recruiting out-of-town kids for a city-funded rec program.

The result was that Muscogee’s then-assistant superintendent for student services, Brenda Dozier, called Mahone in and reprimanded him, he told police. In retaliation, Adams and his allies afterward tried to sabotage Mahone’s program at Carver, the coach said.

Michael Woods, the Columbus Jaguars coach, told police Dozier relied on Adams for access to the city recreation facilities that school teams needed.

“I think Tony’s power is just like mafia,” Woods said. “He became the biggest thing in Columbus sports athletics. … You want to do anything in Columbus sports athletics, you have to go through Parks and Rec. That’s the school district and everybody. Brenda Dozier, when she was in charge, she went through Tony. Everything was handled through Tony.”

Woods said that when Adams restricted the Jaguars’ access to city rec centers, he met with Adams and Hugley. Woods thought Hugley found his complaint valid, but Adams just got up and walked out, Woods said.

When police told Hugley what Woods said, Hugley called the coach a liar, saying he would never let a department head walk out of a meeting.

“Well, let me just say this, I vaguely recall a meeting with him, but if he told you that, he lied to you,” Hugley said while meeting with prosecutors and police on July 20, 2010, the same meeting in which Hodge recalled hearing about the unauthorized Blazers account.

The city manager later added, “I want to go back to this Mike Wood for a second, and let me just say, I wouldn’t know him if he walked through the door. That’s the first thing. And the second thing, if you know anyone who knows me, if a department head got up and walked out of the room while they’re in a meeting with me, they probably wouldn’t work for me.”

Woods told police that his meeting with Hugley made no difference: Adams still wouldn’t let the Jaguars use city gyms.

In a Parks and Rec audit response that Hugley and Goodwin presented to Columbus Council on June 8, 2010, the city manager suggested the elite Blazers basketball team and others operating under the Parks and Rec Innovative Sports Program would split from the city and seek outside funding. No more city money would be spent on players from outside Columbus, he pledged.

Councilors were not informed then that Adams was using the program specifically to recruit Division 1 college players, cutting local players when he found better ones out of town. The Blazers bank account remained secret. Hugley and Goodwin later would tell police they knew nothing about that.

As the audit response concluded, Councilor Mimi Woodson asked Hugley whether Adams had violated any law or policy.

Hugley answered: “Tony Adams and the Parks and Recreation Department have worked to be about the business of taking care of children, and they’ve not violated any current policy and any current law through this audit finding. … And so Tony Adams has not done anything wrong. Do we need to fix some things? Yes, and I intend to do that, but he has not broken any policy or any law.”

The city manager concluded the audit response by trying to shut the controversy down, saying he would meet with Adams, the auditor and other Parks and Rec staff, and report back to council, and that would be the end of it:

“I will work through the concerns with them and the misunderstandings with them, and when I will have done that, I will consider this matter closed.”

When the Ledger-Enquirer requested an interview for this report, Hugley said he had nothing more to say: “The investigation is over, the reports speak for themselves, and I have nothing further to add.”

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