A court hearing that could have resulted in plea deals for defendants in Columbus’ Parks and Rec case today instead became an extended negotiation over setting another court date.
After defense attorney Frank Martin sought more time to examine more than 1,000 pages of evidence in the city scandal that last year led to the arrest and firing of Parks and Rec director Tony Adams, Muscogee Superior Court Judge John Allen granted the delay and started suggesting dates to hear motions and start a trial.
The final schedule, after considerable back-and-forth between the judge, the prosecutors and the defense attorneys, sets a hearing for motions and plea deals March 18, and if necessary, a trial date of May 2.
Martin represents East Marietta Basketball Inc. director William Fox, who along with Adams and city recreation specialist Herman Porter faces charges of defrauding the city by diverting public funds from a city-run basketball team called the Georgia Blazers. Fox for a time was the conduit through which Adams and Porter got money and equipment from sports-gear giant Nike Inc., and those funds should have gone into city coffers instead of into a private account Adams and Porter controlled, police said.
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In court today, Chief Assistant District Attorney Al Whitaker said a computer disc loaded with documents isn’t all the discovery evidence the defense is entitled to review. The police department now has three boxes of hard-copy documents related to Fox’s East Marietta Basketball bank records, he said.
“Any more surprises like that?” Allen asked.
That's all the evidence, Whitaker replied, adding the prosecution had no plans to use any of the hard-copy records.
Columbus attorney Shevon Sutcliffe Thomas asked Allen if he and his client had to be present March 18, if they have no motions pending before the court. Allen said they did not.
All three defendants have been negotiating plea deals with the district attorney’s office. Thomas said after the hearing today that those negotiations were ongoing: “We’re still talking; that’s all I can say,” he said. “We’re still talking.”
Porter’s attorney, Atlanta lawyer Manny Arora, said such negotiations are standard procedure: “You always ask for an offer, whether you take it or not,” he said.
Martin had subpoenaed top city administrators for today’s hearing, but they were never summoned to the witness stand. Most left after he told them they would not be needed.
Martin has filed motions seeking to suppress evidence related to bank accounts, evidence he says police obtained with neither a warrant nor a subpoena, violating his client’s constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
He also filed a motion challenging the prosecution’s claim that the statute of limitations on the charges against Fox hasn’t run out because his alleged offenses only recently were discovered. Martin argues the city’s finance department should have known if Fox was operating in an illicit manner, yet it never questioned him or asked to see his records, which he made no attempt to conceal.
When Adams and Porter were arrested Aug. 24, Police Chief Ricky Boren said that to a private CB&T account they had funneled more than $200,000 that should have gone to the city.
The city fired Adams, 48, on Sept. 28. Porter, 42, has been on administrative leave without pay since his arrest.
Here’s a rundown of the indictments:
Count 1, conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision, charges that between April 18, 2005, and May 31, 2010, Adams and Porter conspired to steal from the city by opening a CB&T account as the “Columbus Blazer Athletic Program,” into which city funds were to be deposited.
Count 2, first-degree forgery, alleges that Adams and Porter opened that account using the city’s tax-exempt identification number, as if they had authorization to when in fact they did not.
Count 3, first-degree forgery, says Adams and Porter claimed to represent a fictitious corporation called the “Columbus Blazer Athletic Program” on the account.
Count 4, theft by taking, says that from April 2005 to May 2010, Adams and Porter took basketball tournament funds that should have gone into city coffers.
Count 5, conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision, charges that Adams, Porter and Fox over those five years engaged in a “kickback scheme,” in which Adams and Porter arranged for the city to host basketball tournaments that Fox sanctioned as president of “Youth Basketball Organization of America-Georgia” and as director of East Marietta Basketball. For those games, the city of Columbus with Adams’ authorization reimbursed Fox for referee fees, which Fox then kicked back to Adams and Porter, who deposited them to a CB&T account.
Count 6, conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision, says that over the same five years Adams, Porter and Fox misrepresented the relationship between East Marietta Basketball and the city-owned Georgia Blazers in order to secure Nike contracts providing money and sports gear over which Adams and Porter gained control in their city jobs. Those contracts claimed that East Marietta Basketball was playing games as the Georgia Blazers, that Adams was the director of East Marietta Basketball, and that East Marietta Basketball’s address was 107 41st St., which is Columbus’ Comer Gym, the Parks and Rec headquarters. They used East Marietta’s tax-exempt ID number for those agreements, the indictment states.
Count 7, theft by taking, alleges that between June 16, 2007, and May 30, 2008, Adams, Porter and Fox took checks or money orders written to the “Columbus Blazers,” “Georgia Blazers,” “Columbus Parks and Rec” or “Columbus Parks and Recreation,” and that Fox then deposited those funds to East Marietta Basketball, though the money should have gone to the city.
The bank account over which Adams and Porter had control was closed May 21, 2010, just days after an audit raising questions about Parks and Rec operations was made public. That audit noted that the Blazers, an elite traveling basketball team in the parks and rec department’s Innovative Sports Program, had so few local players that it primarily served out-of-town youth.
Internal auditor John Redmond met with Adams in March last year to discuss the audit findings, which in mid-May were sent to then-Mayor Jim Wetherington. On May 17, the Ledger-Enquirer got a draft copy of the audit and reported questions about operations and finances in the department, which had a $10 million annual budget and about 300 employees.