The Columbus police probe of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department is now a criminal investigation, and two city employees subject to it have been placed on administrative leave, authorities said Wednesday.
That news came after the city attorney’s office uncovered two e-mail exchanges between Parks and Recreation Director Tony Adams and executives at sports-gear giant Nike in which the correspondents refer to a “contract.”
Columbus attorney Stacey Jackson, who represents not only Adams and some of his subordinates but also the nonprofit East Marietta Basketball, a Nike beneficiary, has maintained that neither the Parks and Recreation Department nor its traveling basketball team the Georgia Blazers has a contract with Nike or with East Marietta Basketball.
Both the city attorney’s office and the Ledger-Enquirer have sought to have any contract involving the city disclosed under the Georgia Open Records Act. The state attorney general’s office is looking into the issue.
City Attorney Clifton Fay said Wednesday that the police probe Mayor Jim Wetherington initially called an “administrative” matter is now a criminal investigation because of the information detectives since have uncovered. He declined to elaborate.
Wetherington called for the investigation May 28 after an internal audit raised questions about financial procedures and operations.
Police Chief Ricky Boren would say only, “The investigation is ongoing,” but Wetherington confirmed it’s now a criminal investigation.
“Chief Boren informed me earlier this week it was turning into a criminal investigation,” the mayor said.
On Wetherington’s orders, City Manager Isaiah Hugley on Wednesday placed Adams and Parks and Recreation program specialist Herman Porter, who’s also involved in the Blazers program, on paid administrative leave. Wetherington, who called Hugley in from vacation, said Adams and Porter are not allowed to visit their offices. Deputy City Manager Lisa Goodwin will run the department’s day-to-day operations.
Adams and Porter have done nothing illegal, said Don Jackson, a Montgomery, Ala., attorney representing Adams and Porter.
“It has been our belief throughout this entire process that this was a criminal investigation,” Don Jackson said. “Refusal to characterize it as a criminal investigation at the outset was nothing more than an effort to deprive interviewees and targets of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.”
Don Jackson said the mayor and the police department’s “involvement in this case raises serious questions about whether there are conflicts of interest.”
Wetherington is a former Columbus police chief.
E-mails cite ‘contract’
On Tuesday, Assistant City Attorney Jaimie DeLoach said a city computer e-mail search for the keywords “Nike” and “contract” turned up an Aug. 16, 2006, message to Adams from Don Crenshaw, who at the time was a Nike basketball marketing manager.
Adams, who coaches the Georgia Blazers, a parks and rec elite traveling basketball team, was among multiple recipients to get the e-mail, which reads:
“The travel team season is drawing to a close August 31. The August 31 date in each contract year signals the end of your opportunity to receive products detailed in the contract for that particular calendar year. Items remaining in your contract for this contract year need to be called for prior to August 31. You will not be allowed to carry over any product remaining from this contract year into the next contract year. If you actually have use for the remaining items, I would suggest that you ask for them, if not, that is OK as well. A few of you have recently asked permission and received approval from me to ‘change out’ some of the items remaining in this year’s contract. These individuals will be allowed to follow through with the exchange as long as the order is received before August 31. We can not accept any new exchange situations for this contract year. Please call me if you have any questions.”
On Wednesday, Fay said his office found a second e-mail, this one from Adams to Nike Elite Youth Basketball League Commissioner Jeff Rogers. Sent Aug. 30, 2007, it states: “Jeff, I was in discussion with Don about the Georgia Blazers contract renewal. I would like to discuss with you ASAP. Thanks for your support!”
Attorney sticks to stance
Having reviewed both e-mails Wednesday, Stacey Jackson said he still maintains that any contract to which the messages refer would be one between Nike and East Marietta Basketball, and neither the Parks and Recreation Department nor the Georgia Blazers are parties to it.
In a letter Friday to Georgia Assistant Attorney General Calandra Harps, the attorney wrote: “There is no contract between Nike and the Georgia Blazers, Nike and the city of Columbus or Nike and the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.”
Regarding requests to have any contract involving the city disclosed, Stacey Jackson wrote of East Marietta Basketball: “In 2010, Nike Inc. entered into a contract with EMB with regard to Nike’s supply and EMB’s use of Nike products by the program. EMB, a nonprofit corporation, donated funds from this grant towards the travel expenses of the Georgia Blazers travel team to cover lodging and food for members of the team. None of the funds from EMB were ever deposited into any account operated by, or on behalf of, the city of Columbus nor Columbus Parks and Recreation. No money was ever paid directly to any city employee nor on behalf of any city employee. There is no contract between Nike and the Georgia Blazers, Nike and the city of Columbus or Nike and the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.”
The contract is between only Nike and EMB, and EMB is a private entity not subject to the state Open Records Act, he said. EMB gets its funding from “private donations and sponsorships as well as registration fees paid by children and parents,” and it gets “no public funding from any city, school group or organization, nor does it hold itself out to be associated with any public entity,” he said.
The Blazers operate under the Parks and Recreation Department’s Innovative Sports Program, which came under scrutiny when a city audit revealed most members of the team lived outside Columbus, raising questions of whether city funds should be spent on residents from other counties. It also has raised questions of whether Adams has been focused more on recruiting players for the Blazers than serving local children.
Adams, 47, joined the city in March 1990 and became parks and recreation director in 2002. His annual salary is $78,939.
Porter, 41, joined parks and rec in June 1991. He earns $30,888 annually, said Tom Barron, the city’s Human Resources director.
The department employs about 300 people and has a $10 million budget.
— Staff writers Chuck Williams and Ben Wright contributed to this report.