A Muscogee County Superior Court judge on Friday found probable cause on felony misappropriation of money charges during a preliminary hearing for former Parks and Recreation Director Tony Adams, subordinate Herman Porter and William Fox of East Marietta Basketball Inc.
The three men have been charged with stealing more than $200,000 from the city. That money was intended for an elite city-run youth basketball team that was sponsored by shoe and apparel giant Nike.
Adams and Porter face two felony charges each, while Fox faces one.
Judge John Allen dismissed one misdemeanor charge each against Porter and Adams because the statute of limitations expired.
The attorney representing Porter contended the men did not steal the money because it wasn’t the city’s money to begin with.
“We regret the ruling,” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Manny Arora told the judge. “I don’t know how the city can claim the money was stolen. It was never their money.”
Assistant District Attorney Alonza Whitaker countered.
“If city employees took the money, the city had possession of it,” he said.
All the prosecutors had to prove at the preliminary hearing was there was probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The next step is for the prosecutors to take the case to the grand jury, which can issue indictments.
The judge pointed out the hearing would be moot if the grand jury returns indictments.
“Even if I dismissed all of the charges, they could be indicted,” Allen said.
The hearing lasted more than three hours. Preliminary hearings are usually held within 72 hours of arrest. Adams and Porter were arrested about two months ago and Fox was arrested a month ago.
It is also unusual for a Superior Court judge to conduct preliminary hearings. Allen granted the hearing two weeks ago when Arora and Shevon Sutcliffe Thomas, who represents Adams, asked for it.
The judge left the door open for the defense attorneys to get the charges dismissed. The judge gave them until Wednesday to file briefs arguing the fact that the money police claim was misappropriated belonged to the city.
The state’s case against the three men was outlined by Columbus Police Detective Lance Deaton, one of four investigators who worked the case beginning in early June.
About $205,000 in cash and checks moved through a bank account Adams and Porter opened at Columbus Bank & Trust, Deaton said. It was under the name of the Columbus Blazers Athletic Program and the money moved through the account between 2005-2010.
More than $70,000 in checks came from Nike and $89,000 from East Marietta Basketball Inc. There was also about $53,000 in cash and checks that came from businesses and individuals supporting the travel basketball team, Deaton said. Those checks were made out to the Georgia Blazers, Columbus Blazers, Columbus Parks and Recreation and the Innovative Sports Program, the detective said.
The money was spent on hotel rooms, a television and the tow-truck bill for an unnamed Parks and Recreation employee, Deaton said.
Fox, who is also involved with Youth Basketball of America — Georgia, promoted about four tournaments a year in Columbus. Those tournaments were sponsored by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Fox was charging the city for game officials, then sending the money back to Adams and Porter, Deaton claimed.
“What we found is he would send an invoice paid by the city then he would send money back in roughly the same dollar amount,” Deaton said.
Adams approved all the invoices, Deaton said.
“The city absorbed everything — they used city facilities, the refs, the people who worked the tables, everything,” Deaton said.
Over four years, the city paid Fox about $58,000, Deaton said.
The bank account was closed by Porter shortly after the Ledger-Enquirer filed a Georgia Opens Records Act request seeking Nike contracts, Deaton testified. There was about $1,400 in the account and it was moved to another account controlled by Adams, Porter and Parks and Recreation employee Tim Marshall, Deaton said.
Arora asked Deaton if any money was transferred from a city account into the Georgia Blazers account.
“No,” Deaton answered. “However, that does not mean no city money has been taken and put into this account.”
At one point, Arora asked the detective if anyone — Nike or any of the other contributors — had asked for their money back.
“I think the city wants its money back,” Deaton said.
After the hearing, Arora called the charges “idiocy” and said the case was a waste of taxpayer money.
“Nike should be filing a complaint saying you duped us,” Arora said.
He pointed out the company had not done that.
There were four contracts Adams signed with Nike, Deaton said. Most of the time attorneys began to question Deaton about the contracts, Allen cut off the line of questions.
“We’re not going to argue about the Nike contracts,” the judge said at one point.
The detectives discussed the case with the IRS and FBI during the investigation, Deaton said. No IRS or federal charges have been filed.
The district attorney’s office made a motion to have Stacey Jackson, one of Porter’s attorneys, removed from the case for conflict of interest. Jackson, who spent more than 30 minutes on the stand, represented Adams and Fox earlier in the case, as well as at least seven other Parks and Recreation employees during the criminal investigation.
Frank Martin, the attorney representing Fox, and Whitaker questioned Jackson.
Allen did not rule on that motion, which allowed Jackson to participate in the hearing.
Adams has since been fired from his city post last month, while Porter remains suspended without pay.