The politically charged Columbus Parks and Recreation scandal that kicked off 17 months ago when then-Mayor Jim Wetherington ordered the department audited ended quietly Thursday with a 30-minute court hearing in which three defendants pleaded guilty to reduced charges of misappropriating public funds and got no jail time.
Fired Parks and Rec Director Tony Adams, suspended recreation specialist Herman Porter and East Marietta Basketball Director William Fox each pleaded guilty before Muscogee Superior Court Judge John Allen, who ordered them to pay the city restitution and placed them on probation.
After the hearing, District Attorney Julia Slater said Columbus authorities now consider the case closed. She would not comment on whether outside agencies would follow up.
Months of discord
The plea deal ended months of controversy surrounding the investigation born of an internal audit that raised questions about how the department managed its finances. An audit report the Ledger-Enquirer obtained May 17, 2010, noted the department’s Innovative Sports Program had an elite teenage boys’ basketball team with only one Columbus player, the rest having been recruited, some from as far away as Mobile, Ala., Bonifay, Fla., and Valdosta, Ga.
That led to more questions about how Adams and Porter oversaw the team called the Georgia Blazers, prompting Wetherington to order a police investigation on May 28. The investigation uncovered a secret bank account Adams and Porter controlled. That led to the pair’s being arrested on Aug. 24, accused of diverting more than $200,000 in public funds to the private bank account they’d established in the Blazers’ name, using the city’s tax-exempt ID number. Fox was arrested Sept. 13 and charged in the conspiracy.
Police said Fox for a time was the conduit through which Adams and Porter got money and equipment from sports-gear giant Nike Inc. Investigators said Adams and Porter also put that money in their private Blazers account instead of depositing it with the city.
Last month, a grand jury indicted Adams and Porter on three counts of conspiracy to defraud a “political subdivision,” meaning the city, and two counts each of theft by taking and first-degree forgery. Fox faced two counts of conspiracy to defraud the city and one count of theft by taking.
In the plea deal arranged with Chief Assistant District Attorney Al Whitaker, Porter’s indictments were dismissed altogether and he instead was charged with three misdemeanors, while Adams faced only two felonies and Fox only one.
Here are the penalties Allen imposed:
Adams, 48, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to defraud the city. He was sentenced to four years’ probation, ordered to pay the city $25,000 in restitution and to perform 50 hours of community service. Allen set his monthly payments at $700. The city fired Adams on Sept. 28.
Fox, 59, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the city. He was sentenced to four years’ probation, ordered to pay the city $25,000 in restitution and to perform 100 hours of community service. His attorney, Columbus lawyer Frank Martin, asked that Fox be assigned to community service in the Atlanta area, where he lives. Martin also said Fox was prepared to pay his restitution immediately.
Porter, 42, pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor theft charges. He was sentenced to 12 months’ consecutive probation on each and ordered to pay the city $20,000 in restitution. Allen set his monthly payments at $750. Suspended without pay since his arrest, Porter as part of the agreement pledged to leave his city job and not reapply.
That took effect immediately: “As of this moment, he is no longer our employee,” Columbus Human Resources Director Tom Barron said Thursday evening.
In Allen’s courtroom, City Manager Isaiah Hugley, Deputy City Manager Lisa Goodwin and Assistant City Attorney Jaimie DeLoach stood next to Whitaker as the three defendants entered their guilty pleas.
Adams in his city job had reported directly to Goodwin. Both Hugley and Goodwin refused to comment after the hearing. “I am not going to comment on the decision made by the judge,” said Hugley, once one of Adams’ staunchest supporters.
Adams and Porter also declined comment, trying to avoid reporters by using a rear stairway to exit the Government Center’s seventh floor. Adams was accompanied by his defense attorney, Shevon Sutcliffe Thomas, who said, “My client is free.”
Atlanta lawyer Manny Arora, Porter’s attorney, said his client was satisfied with the deal. “He didn’t want to risk going to trial,” Arora said.
Said Fox: “I just want to put this behind me.”
City Attorney Clifton Fay said the plea deal ended a sad chapter in Parks and Recreation history. “I am glad the taxpayers are going to get some of their money back,” he said. “I appreciate the judge ordering restitution and community service.”
Whitaker said the plea bargain avoided the cost of a trial and “the possible fallout from the community.” Asked what he meant by the latter, he said he was referring to allegations that the Parks and Rec investigation was racially motivated. Adams and Porter are black, and their supporters claimed Wetherington targeted the two because of their race.
Whitaker said the sentences were appropriate for defendants with no prior criminal records and no charges related to violent crime. Ninety percent of cases end in plea deals, he said, so the outcome was not unprecedented.
Of the $210,000 that passed through the CB&T account Adams and Porter opened in the name of the “Columbus Blazer Athletic Program,” about $130,000 came from Nike, Whitaker said. He said most of the money was spent on the Blazers’ program, though some “questionable transactions” were found.
Nike and other companies dealing in brand-name sports gear support community athletic programs partly to recruit future stars for commercial endorsements. Critics say the business competition is fierce and breeds its own esoteric intrigue.
Here’s a rundown of the three defendants’ February indictments. Adams pleaded guilty to counts 5 and 6; Fox to count 5. Porter pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges. The other charges were dismissed.
Count 1, conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision, charged that between April 18, 2005, and May 31, 2010, Adams and Porter conspired to steal from the city by opening the CB&T account into which city funds were to be deposited.
Count 2, first-degree forgery, alleged Adams and Porter opened the 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, said Adams and Porter claimed to represent a fictitious corporation called the “Columbus Blazer Athletic Program” on the account.
Count 4, theft by taking, said 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, charged 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 the CB&T account.
Count 6, conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision, said 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 said.
Count 7, theft by taking, alleged 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 the internal audit became public.
Barron said the city continues its search for a new Parks and Rec director, having narrowed the field of candidates to four. More than 260 people submitted applications for the job, for which the annual salary ranges from $69,770 to $106,163