SPECIAL REPORT: Mayor Teresa Tomlinson pledges more audits, steps to prevent scandals

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJune 29, 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.

Columbus’ new mayor says shoddy bookkeeping no longer will be tolerated anywhere in city government, not just in the Parks and Recreation Department.

Columbus’ new Parks and Rec director isn’t saying much yet.

In the aftermath of a financial scandal that essentially erased Parks and Rec’s top management, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has a lot to say about its new director, 33-year-old James Worsley, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina-Greenboro and a doctorate from North Carolina A&T University. He comes from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg parks and rec department, where he was a regional director.

Asked last week about the effect of the scandal, Tomlinson said: “I think this is a sad though interesting transition, a very public and sad transition, from perhaps a city that was run in older, more informal ways, where you allowed people the benefit of the doubt. … I think this is symbolic of the fact that we are no longer a small city ... and we have to start running things with a level of sophistication and oversight and accountability.”

She added, “And I think that’s why you see us hiring Dr. James Worsley, somebody who’s eminently qualified, who is very well respected professionally, has written in peer-reviewed articles, subjected himself to national boards of review. …”

Called Thursday, Worsley said he was only four days on the job and not ready to make public judgments about a department he was still getting to know.

He did comment on wanting to “heal” a department wounded by scandal -- something the mayor said Worsley mentioned while being interviewed for the job.

“After anything like that happens in any type of department, one of the first things that one would want to do is provide some type of synergy on bringing everyone together so that we can make sure that we’re all on one page,” he said. “I had spoken previously about this, in terms of doing an initial assessment to see where we stand in terms of programs, where we stand in terms of staff training and development, those sorts of things.”

Once those assessments are done, the department will institute a plan for what’s to come, he said.

Program cut

One thing that won’t be coming back is the Innovative Sports Program through which fired Director Tony Adams recruited top basketball players for his elite Nike-branded Georgia Blazers basketball team, Tomlinson said. The program budgeted since 2002 has been cut from Parks and Rec.

The city still will offer basketball programs for youth and adults, but the mingling and misuse of public and private resources that characterized the Blazers’ operation will not be allowed, Tomlinson pledged: “First of all, I can tell you that this type of thing’s not going to be tolerated any longer, to the extent that it was … and so I think what you’re going to see is us being much more diligent, much more skeptical, much more sophisticated, much more professional in the way we run this city.”

Among the first steps will be adopting an ordinance requiring prior approval for any city worker’s opening a bank account using Columbus’ tax-exempt ID number, she said. Councilors have a draft of the law and now are discussing whether such accounts can be established with the permission of the city manager and finance director, or whether council should be the final authority.

Auditor’s report

That ordinance was among the recommendations internal auditor John Redmond proposed in his April 28 review of the 2010 police investigation that led to Adams’ arrest and conviction for defrauding the city, a felony. Adams had a private bank account into which he deposited cash grants from Nike and funds that should have gone to city coffers.

Some of Redmond’s other recommendations already have been implemented, the mayor said, including this one listed in his final report:

“Daily vehicle logs should be maintained for city owned or leased vehicles, indicating the date, beginning odometer reading, a detailed itinerary of travel, purpose of the travel and the ending odometer reading. … While some departments require this by department policy, Parks and Recreation discontinued the practice to disguise the out of area trips to pick up and return home Innovative Sports Program players recruited from other areas who were participating on Blazer teams.”

Adams’ use of city vans and buses for his basketball players became a point of contention last year when city administrators initially denied he used them to transport players from out of town. Because the department had no vehicle logs to check, police had to track vehicle use by questioning drivers and checking gas receipts.

Driver rules

Redmond also recommended the city reinforce policies requiring that anyone driving a city vehicle be a city worker who has completed a driver education and safety program, with periodic refresher courses.

Tomlinson agreed. “Again that speaks to that level of sophistication, that this is not a city where you throw some guy the keys and say, ‘Hey, take the van.’”

In his report Redmond noted the danger to which Adams’ operation exposed the city: “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. … 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.”

What took so long?

Redmond also addressed the question many have asked since police discovered just how long Adams had misused city resources for what essentially became his “personal business” of acting as a sports agent for elite area basketball players:

How did this go undiscovered for so long?

Statistics show the average fraud goes undetected for two years, Redmond wrote, adding, “Frauds involving conspiracy or collusion are difficult to carry out, but when they are, the time that they go undetected lengthens.”

The tools commonly used to catch the misuse of funds and other resources just weren’t being used, he said, noting that “key managers deactivating controls, abating policies and procedures, managers and employees not asking questions about transactions or activities that concern them can lead to very undesirable outcomes.”

Another question many have asked is: To what extent were Adams’ bosses, City Manager Isaiah Hugley and Deputy City Manager Lisa Goodwin, to blame for not monitoring Adams closely enough?

Tomlinson said one reason top executives overlooked the scandal for so long was that because Adams and his cohorts believed what they were doing was right, so did others. So no one thought to “drill down” to determine whether improprieties were taking place, she said.

Adams’ charisma also tended to charm people who might have been more suspicious of someone less personable, she said.

The belief nothing was wrong with the Blazers program was evident in what Margaret Brown told detectives. Brown ran the rec services division under which the Innovative Sports Program operated. After the scandal, she resigned under threat of termination.

When one of the investigators questioning her July 15, 2010, said the program should be run the right way, she replied, “I don’t see where we’re doing what’s not right, so everybody else does.”

Said Tomlinson: “The genuine belief that you’re not doing anything wrong … goes a very long way to preventing people from asking questions, because they don’t get the guilty sense from the wrongdoer.”

Beyond the policies the city will adopt or reinforce to prevent another scandal, residents can anticipate this, Tomlinson said: More audits will examine other city operations, and any misuse of funds will be addressed.

“If it’s flat-out thievery, if it’s flat-out fraud, I’m telling you, no tolerance for that, and there’s also no tolerance for shoddy leadership, for self-dealing. … I don’t care if it was done in 1956. It’s not done today.”

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