SPECIAL REPORT: Inner circle ran basketball, other divisions suffered

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJune 28, 2011 

  • 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.

Former Columbus Parks and Recreation Director Tony Adams relied on a command staff composed of Recreation Services Division members to support his mission of identifying Division I college players through the city’s Nike-branded city basketball team.

Excluded from his chain of command was Cammy Currie, the assistant director of Parks and Rec. And excluded from his attention was just about every other division of his department.

Overlooking what was happening outside rec services was easy for Adams, because his focus was on recruiting top college players. He found them as far away as Florida. He took them across the country to tournaments where coaches eyed the most talented prospects competing against each other. He went to mandatory Nike conferences and made sure his team got to the tournaments Nike required. He arranged local tournaments for the nonprofit East Marietta Basketball Inc., through which Nike cash and equipment was funneled to his Blazers team.

He and assistant Herman Porter drafted workers from other Parks and Rec divisions to work tournaments. They sent city vehicles and drivers out of town to get players or take them home.

As Internal Auditor John Redmond later described it: “Effectively, they had formed a personal business, with the city paying them salaries, providing facilities for their business events, and the incumbent operating expenses and most of the revenue being retained by them for personal and team use.”

Columbus police documented all this not only with CB&T bank records detailing Adams’ and Porter’s private Blazers account, opened with the city’s tax-exempt ID number, but also through interviews with current and former city employees who said that Adams alienated Currie, neglected other divisions and diverted resources to his Blazers program.

Voices of dissent

“Most of the issues I personally had was the fact that the way the department was run was completely unprofessional,” said Annette Gibney, who retired Nov. 1, 2009, having directed senior centers and worked in therapeutic recreation. “There was a lot of favoritism. Tony had what he considered his staff, and he actually called them his staff in talking to other personnel.”

Adams’ staff, operating out of Bibb City’s Comer Auditorium, included Finance Manager Becky Glisson, personnel coordinator Teresa Snellings, rec services director Margaret Brown, and program supervisor Shelley Stephens. His chief lieutenant was rec services specialist Porter, who ran tournaments, made team travel reservations and orchestrated vehicles and drivers for games within bus distance.

Currie was not among his insiders.

“She and Tony butted heads on quite a few occasions, and right now is completely ostracized,” Gibney told police June 22, 2010, before Deputy City Manager Lisa Goodwin fired Currie, allegedly for reasons unrelated to the Blazers scandal.

“Since the audit, no one talks to her, and they’ve been told not to talk to her,” Gibney added. “I talked to one of my former employees the other day and he actually has been told by Margaret Brown that he cannot go into Cammy’s office. I mean, that’s unprofessional. She is the assistant director of Parks and Recreation.”

Workers outside rec services were drafted to work basketball tournaments. Gibney said for four straight years she was assigned to cook for a coaches’ reception at the Columbus Civic Center.

Also assigned that duty was Celsa Muniz, who runs the community schools program. She recalled cooking for about 300 people at Civic Center receptions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. She said they cooked at the Pop Austin rec center and hauled the food downtown.

Adams often drew from other divisions for his basketball program, workers said.

Muniz said community schools needed a new vehicle for transporting children, so she budgeted a minibus, and the city bought it.

Adams took it, she said: “What happened was, I say, ‘OK, where is my minibus? The kids are going to be happy.’ They said Tony was going to keep it for the recreation division. That’s all I know.”

Instead of the minibus, she got an old van. “It’s not working…. We have two that are almost falling apart. So bad,” she said.

Internal Auditor John Redmond confirmed this, and said Adams could not have used old vans to run his multi-state Blazers’ operation: “He more or less commandeered her new bus and gave her an old one, and took that one because … he was running them all over a multi-state area, picking up kids and bringing them back. Well, you can’t do that in a raggedy 13- or 15-year-old bus with 250,000 miles on it. So basically he hands off the old junk stuff to her, and you know, he kept the good stuff for his basketball players.”

But when the Ledger-Enquirer asked Mayor Teresa Tomlinson about that, she said the minibus was budgeted, but never purchased. According to Goodwin, Parks and Rec had to forego the bus and instead use the money to make emergency repairs to a crack discovered at the Double Churches pool.

No travel rules

While questioning Brown, detectives at one point asked what policies were in place for basketball teams traveling out of town. “I mean, there were no rules,” she said. “I ran it by the director.”

That travel often involved city vehicles and drivers, but as late as July 7, 2010, when detectives asked Goodwin whether Parks and Rec had picked up out-of-town Blazers’ players, she replied: “I have no knowledge of that, and to my understanding, that does not occur, to my understanding.”

That was not true, and other city workers knew it.

William Sanks, who’d worked 34 years with Parks and Rec, told police he drove a city bus to take a Blazers team to and from the Boo Williams’ tournament in Hampton, Va., and took some players home in a city van when they got back to Columbus.

With Porter’s approval, he took players home to Lumpkin, Ga.

Eric Allen, who worked part-time for the city as a recreation leader, recalled Porter giving him a rental van to pick up players in Dothan, Ala., and bring them to Comer to board a bus. The team had two players from Florida, one from Dothan and one from Eufaula, he said. Porter gave him a credit card for gas.

Of Adams and Porter sending Parks and Rec vehicles to transport out-of-town players for their elite American Athletic Union team, Redmond wrote in his final report: “During the investigation, it was learned that many of the participants of the elite team and AAU travel basketball players were from outside of Muscogee County, some coming from neighboring states. City-owned vans were operated to transport out-of-town players to and from Columbus for practice or tournaments. ... Daily vehicle logs that would have readily disclosed this out-of-county travel were discontinued several years ago at the direction of Parks and Recreation Department management.”

Redmond said eliminating motor pool logs helped Adams disguise how he was using city vehicles. This also went unnoticed for years, though all departments that use city vehicles are supposed to track them.

“At one point there were vehicle logs. It’s pretty much standard throughout the city. All of them are supposed to have them, if it’s a city-owned vehicle,” the auditor said. But Adams “basically told them that was a waste of time, to quit keeping the logs. That’s one reason why during the course of the audit, it was difficult to trace where all these people were going to.”

General disorder

Chris Bryant once managed eight rec centers for Parks and Rec, starting full-time in 2001. He still works part-time for the city, but also has a full-time job at Columbus State University.

He told police that the conflict between Adams and Currie troubled him, too:

“When I was promoted to division manager at community schools, just the clash between Cammy and Tony kind of bothered me a lot. … Tony wanted me to report to him at least once a month on all the monies that the community schools division was bringing in, and how the locations were doing at the time. Cammy did not want me to report that to Tony about the money that was coming in, being generated by community schools.”

Redmond said the community schools division generates significant revenue, about $1.5 million a year -- around 10 times more than city swimming pools make in a 10-week season.

Bryant saw a lack of organization within Parks and Rec. “Coming from the type person I am, I’m prompt; I like things to be in order,” he said. “Sometimes things get chaotic with the parks department, and it makes you uneasy when you’re a very organized person, to try to be spontaneous at the last minute to try to turn things around. And that goes along with a lot of the special event things I’ve done with the department.”

For example, he got last-minute orders for tables, tents and chairs that should have been scheduled, and customers called to complain a rec center they had reserved was not open. Yet no one had scheduled that, either, he said: “Just things like that just really irritate me.”

Workers diverted

It also bothered some divisions that Adams was pulling workers from other budgets.

Celsa Muniz with community schools told police Adams put positions on others’ payrolls and then kept the workers for himself.

One such worker was Bryant Thomas, she said.

Thomas told police that for 18 months he had worked 20 to 30 hours a week for the city, washing and cleaning the vans and monitoring kids practicing at Comer. He coached the Blazers’ 13 and under boys team, and he was among the drivers who en route to an Atlanta tournament went through Macon to pick up players from Cordele and Irwinton.

Muniz said Adams told her to hire Thomas, who started as a school sports worker for community schools. In June 2009, Adams told her Thomas would work for him at Comer, but remain on her payroll. He told her Teresa Snellings would account for Thomas’ time, Muniz said.

The practice ended when she sent Snellings an email about it, she said.

“Community Schools was paying for Bryant, and that went all the way to September, when we sent an email saying, ‘OK, for how much longer do we have to keep on paying Bryant and how many hours?’ And like 10 minutes later she sent an email saying Tony said to remove him from my payroll.”

When investigators asked whether this was common, Muniz said, “Yes, with Tony and his boys. Whenever we hired somebody that played basketball, they would come and work when they feel like it and we were not able to fire them like the other people. It’s been going on for years.”

Brian Giffin worked in the Parks and Rec athletics division, and was in charge of the swimming pools. He started in 1993 and left in 2008.

He recalled getting city paychecks for pool workers who weren’t working at pools. “When I got the whole batch of them, there were two or three names in there that I never even recognized,” he told police. So he informed Snellings. “She said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re working over here,’ and I said, ‘But they’re being paid out of my line item.’ She said, ‘Tony approved it.’”

He said some workers could not be unaccounted for: “I know for a fact that when we tried to do an organizational chart, we had 20-some-odd people that didn’t fall somewhere in the right places, because they’re supposed to be at community schools, they might be at the marina, or they’re under athletics and they’re working at Comer, or they’re at the pools and they’re working somewhere else…. You had people who weren’t working where they were supposed to be. We had some people we were not sure were even working, drawing a paycheck.”

Giffin noted also that Adams and Porter would draft his workers for tournament scorekeepers and tell him, “You pay for it.”

Cleaning up

Redmond said the payroll discrepancies workers complained to police about have been cleared up. Because of the nature of its far-flung operations, Parks and Rec would move personnel around, but then administrators would neglect to fill out paperwork. The problem was fixed after the initial audit, Redmond said: “They move people rather frequently in the summertime.... They’re supposed to be in the right places now, charged where they should be and where the budgets are.”

Because Parks and Rec is not a centralized, one-site agency, but has facilities all over town, it requires more site visits from upper management, Redmond said.

“They’ve got almost 50 locations spread all over the city. It’s not like supervisors can sit in their office and look out through the window, like they might in an office building, and say, ‘Oh yeah, I see Jim’s over there and he’s got money, and there’s Suzy, she looks like she’s reconciling tickets.’ You can’t see those things in a division or department that size, so you need to have regular visits to places, you need to do some management by walking around to see what’s going on.”

When that doesn’t happen, things tend to go awry, in finances, procedures and personnel, he said.

“I’m just going to tell you, it’s very unlikely that somebody just goes in there and starts withholding $20,000 here and there from your bank deposit. That’s not what they do. They start out testing the system with a little bit, and if it doesn’t seem to get detected, they get a little bolder,” Redmond said. “And maybe more people say, ‘Hey, nobody’s looking over there, let’s see what I can do over here.’ It’s really mainly an absence of controls and supervision.

“And let’s face it, from a senior management perspective of like, say, Lisa Goodwin or Isaiah, they can only see so much of that. They’ve got to rely on their director and their assistant directors and their division managers to look after those things, and if all those people or many of those people are not looking, or they’re deliberately looking the other way, it sets an atmosphere that’s conducive for wrong things to happen.”

Fear factor

Former Parks and Rec finance manager Pam Knight said Adams’ use of Parks and Rec vans to take players to tournaments raised suspicions years ago, because vans were in high demand.

“Everybody was suspicious about things, from people being on payroll that weren’t actually working but getting a paycheck, to Parks and Rec vans being used inappropriately for personal use,” she said.

But workers were afraid to speak up. Some still were scared when police interviewed them. Muniz with community schools told investigators: “We are all very scared. We are very scared. We all are.”

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