Special report: Worker noticed lax cash handling long before city scandal erupted

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJune 27, 2011 

  • Mayor Teresa Tomlinson discusses the Parks and Recreation Department audit
  • POLICE INTERVIEWS
  • PARKS & REC SERIES

    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.

Lax financial controls within the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department worsened as conscientious workers unhappy with its mismanagement left to take jobs elsewhere, witnesses told police investigating a scandal last year.

The degradation of financial controls continued even after Columbus weathered other well-publicized revenue issues, cut programs and laid off workers during a budget crisis.

The budget crunch came to a head in 2006, the same year a police shortage compelled Columbus Council to adopt a pay plan so remaining city workers’ salaries would be competitive with those in other municipalities.

In mid-June, Columbus Council adopted a $193.6 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2006. Having anticipated a $9 million budget shortfall, the city also laid off 33 full-time and 17 part-time workers.

The Columbus Parks and Recreation Department -- among the city’s major employers because of part-time seasonal labor -- took the brunt of the cuts. Two longtime administrators, Bill Chester and Joe Slade, were compelled to retire early.

The following August, residents learned the city for years had neglected to collect fees charged to customers using the city landfills. City Manager Isaiah Hugley had the sheriff’s office investigate his finance department’s revenue division, as then-Finance Director Angela Cole told him she feared documents had been destroyed.

That December authorities estimated the city had lost more than $2 million in landfill fees.

Also in 2006, residents learned the city had fallen behind on collecting Metra parking fines and recouping Medicare payments for ambulance services.

On Dec. 5, councilors voted to hire another internal auditor to replace the one they’d just laid off in their fiscal year 2007 budget. They promised the city would be more accountable.

But within Parks and Rec, a gradual degradation of accountability already had begun, and it continued.

It culminated this past March in former Director Tony Adams’ pleading guilty to defrauding the city, a felony. His top lieutenant, Herman Porter, pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor theft.

The police investigation leading to their arrests showed they had been using Parks and Rec resources and cash grants from sports-gear giant Nike Inc. to recruit top basketball players regionally for Division I colleges. They poured their Nike cash into a private slush fund, mingling it with city funds.

They opened their private bank account using the city’s tax-exempt ID number on April 18, 2005. They got their first check from Nike on June 2, 2006. It was for $20,000.

The long slide

Obvious symptoms of a department operating with little accountability preceded the 2010 police investigation. One sign was its lax handling of cash.

Brian Giffin worked in the Parks and Rec athletic division from 1993 to 2008. He managed city pools back when the department had a computer database and an ID-card system to track customers. When he left, that system was discarded.

Giffin also made sure two people at each pool counted each day’s receipts before making the bank deposit and forwarded the receipt to the finance manager, who also got a report directly from the bank.

When Giffin left to become operations manager at the Columbus Civic Center, pool managers quit counting the cash. Instead they just bagged it and hauled it to Parks and Rec Finance Manager Becky Glisson.

Last year when detectives questioned Giffin while investigating the corruption within Parks and Rec, he told them the city’s larger pools generated a lot of cash. Psalmond Road got up to 900 visitors and netted about $2,000 a day. Altogether the pools made about $150,000 during a 10-week season, he said.

The later practice of bagging cash and carrying it to be counted and deposited was unsafe and unsound, and workers knew it, Giffin told police.

He told investigators that in 2009, one of the worried cash couriers came to him: “He was just sort of freaking out, because he was having to haul all this money to Becky and just drop it off, and he said, ‘Well, what if Becky says it’s $400 short?’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re going to be the one blamed because you’re the one bringing the money.’ ”

When Redmond conducted a Parks and Rec audit that prompted last year’s police investigation, he noted serious deficiencies in how the department counted cash and inventory.

Former Parks and Rec Finance Manager Pam Knight told police those concerns were not new: She had found the department would purchase inventory for concessions, but deposits for sales would not match.

Like Giffin, who eventually transferred to become operations manager at the Columbus Civic Center, Knight finally left Parks and Rec, in 2003. She said she would have left anyway, having earned an advanced degree and a better job, but she also was worried about Parks and Rec operations.

“I felt like I was constantly questioning things,” she told police.

Giffin’s computerized ID system for pool customers was to be expanded for use in league sports and equipment checkouts, but under Adams the department scrapped it because it created a backlog of visitors waiting to get into pools on busy days.

Giffin said the system worked. He recalled that in 2004, a guy he hired on Adams’ recommendation let people in without IDs: “The only way we found this out was the people that he let in got caught rifling through some other folks’ stuff while they were in the pool.” When caught, the suspects could not show proof they’d paid to get in, Giffin said.

Adams would not let him fire the gatekeeper, Giffin said, so Giffin gave the guy another job to do: “So for the next eight weeks, I had him down at Rigdon Park picking up trash. … Tony stood his ground on that one. I still don’t understand why.”

Stashing cash

How the department handled cash became a running theme in the police investigation.

Workers wondered what happened to the money charged for admission to basketball tournaments. The cash was stashed in metal boxes administrators picked up, but it was never counted on site.

This annoyed Irene Pate, a pottery specialist in the cultural arts program who worked 10 years at three different rec centers. Told in late 2008 that she no longer could accept cash from people enrolling for pottery courses, she decided she’d had enough, and said so in her Jan. 20, 2009, resignation letter.

When detectives asked her about that, Pate vented: Despite her meticulous bookkeeping, she couldn’t take cash, she said. “And there was all that cash being brought in through basketball tournaments, and nobody ever knew where it went. So it was like there was one set of rules for us -- our little group -- but there were no rules for the rest of them.”

That really ticked her off: “What the hell is that about? … It just frosted me, and that was enough, to insinuate that we were somehow untrustworthy when there was that big box of money at basketball tournaments that wasn’t counted. That pushed my button. … We’re a municipality, and that’s money coming in the door that we have no record of.”

She left Parks and Rec on April 1, 2009.

Chris Bryant once managed eight rec centers for the department. He started full time with Parks and Rec in 2001 and still works part time doing special events for the city, though he now has a full-time job at Columbus State University.

He described the scope of Columbus’ March Riverfest basketball tournament, a major Youth Basketball of America event that typically drew more than 100 teams and over a weekend used 20 gyms on Friday, 18 on Saturday and eight for its Sunday finals.

That took all the city rec centers, plus facilities at Columbus State University, all the high school gyms except Spencer and Carver, and usually the middle-school gyms at Midland and Blackmon Road, Bryant said. He said a weekend tournament pass was $8 and a one-day pass $4, but police heard varying amounts of tournament admission from different witnesses.

Bryant told officers he, too, wondered about the cash being generated, knowing spectators were not counted coming in and Rec Services Manager Margaret Brown was just hauling the cash to a closet safe in Adams’ office at Bibb City’s Comer Auditorium, where Brown would count it for deposit.

Brown told police Riverfest proceeds were collected three times a day, and during the day she either would keep the money in her city car or store it in the safe at Comer. From a day’s receipts she would pay those working the games -- high school kids who worked the door at Hardaway, cleanup crews and school site supervisors. Such costs could total $2,000 over the weekend, she said. In cash admission the tournament brought in $3,300 to $3,500, she said, and she made a final deposit on Monday morning.

She told detectives that after counting out the day’s receipts Friday and Saturday night, she pulled out enough cash so those working the door could make change the next day, and left that money overnight in her car. The most she needed for startup was $2,500, she said.

Moving large sums in cash was common for Adams’ elite Nike-sponsored Blazers basketball team. Through an account Adams and Porter created using the city’s tax-exempt ID number, they funneled $130,000 in Nike cash grants over five years, mingling that with city funds.

Detectives probing Parks and Rec noted that Adams and Porter often withdrew hundreds or thousands in cash rather than writing checks or using debit cards, which would have left a record of expenditures. In a span of just three years, Adams and Porter withdrew $120,000 in cash from the account, police said.

The cleanup

Since the audit and ensuing police investigation, Parks and Rec has cleaned up its cash act, the city’s internal auditor told the Ledger-Enquirer.

Of swimming pool cash, he said: “They have divided it up now where the recording and the deposit function are separated.”

Now each pool cashier balances the till at end of the day, counting cash drawers down to the startup money, under the supervision of a pool manager, who makes the deposit. The department finance manager gets a report on the day’s activity at the pool, determines how much money it should have made and checks that against the deposit, Redmond said.

Redmond said Adams and Glisson discarded the computer ID system city pools once used: “Becky and Tony decided to scrap that after Brian left. The system has some very good attributes in my opinion, but it also has some aspects that are a little bit unfriendly from a customer’s standpoint." If a lot of newcomers show up at the same time, it creates a backlog at the gate, Redmond said.

Had that ID system, as intended, been expanded for league registration in youth football and basketball, it would have streamlined that: “It’s just a matter of swiping the card, or scanning it,” Redmond said. “In that sense it’s very good. It also provided good information, statistically, on how long people stayed at the pool, and you could determine how much money they spent there.”

He added: “You have a record of who was there, and of course it gives you good head-count information and the average length of time that people stay, which is helpful because pools have capacities, and our two pools on the north side of town, they tend to run at capacity almost every day.”

Those pools are at Psalmond Road and Double Churches. “Both of those stay pretty full. There are times when people literally have to wait to get into those pools,” Redmond said.

Now pool visitors pay their admission and get a cash receipt, and the city tracks the money through the register.

Admission to sports tournaments is tracked the same way, Redmond said, though he has recommended those running the gate use tickets to keep up with attendance. Learning spectators were passing tickets to newcomers who hadn’t paid, Parks and Rec started using hand stamps to keep up with admission. Stamps are fine for tracking who’s paid, but tickets still are needed to record attendance, Redmond said.

Tournament cash drawers have to be counted down at the end of the day, too, he said: “You should be able to count your money down, just like they do now at the pools, less your startup cash, and that should match your ticket sales. Then you’d make that deposit, and you should have a deposit that matches that day’s recorded receipts.”

Redmond said Knight was a disciplined manager, but controls slipped after she and Giffin left the department. “She truly was a financial manager, and was skilled and experienced in that area as well as degreed, and she understood what the controls should be. And I think when they started shifting some things around, giving other people those responsibilities, and Tony basically was more interested in being a sports agent, he was kind of an absentee director, and he was letting other people run it, or the division managers do their own areas.”

Giffin told police that Adams was so preoccupied with his Amateur Athletic Union basketball team that he left day-to-day operations to his finance manager, Becky Glisson: “I guess Tony was so into the AAU basketball, Becky was pretty much running the department. … If we were in a meeting and something happened, and you started to voice your opinion, Becky would be the first one to jump up on the table and start barking orders, and then Tony would just sit back.”

In his final report on the police investigation, Redmond noted that Parks and Rec’s loose cash collections likely began 15 years ago:

“When did it begin? Cash controls over events have been lax for many years, perhaps to the midnight basketball program in the mid-’90s or the weekend dances that existed in the 1990s. Sequentially numbered tickets were rarely used, monies were collected for admissions, mainly in cash, and there was little accountability for cashiering activities. A person would appear late in the evening, take away the cash box uncounted, and it was gone.”

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