City Manager Isaiah Hugley said he didn’t know.
On Tuesday, he told Columbus Council that for years he didn’t know former Columbus Parks and Recreation Director Tony Adams recruited regional top Division I college prospects for an elite Georgia Blazers boys basketball team operated under the department’s Innovative Sports Program.
He said he didn’t know Adams had cut so many local players to make room for out-of-town athletes that last year the Blazers team for boys age 17 and younger had only one player from Columbus.
He said he didn’t know Adams and recreation specialist Herman Porter were sending city vehicles and drivers out of town to pick up players or take them home.
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He didn’t know Adams since 2005 had signed five contracts to get cash grants totaling $130,000 and shoes and uniforms from sports gear giant Nike Inc., which sponsors travel basketball teams like the Blazers in hopes of finding the next big star to endorse its products.
He said he didn’t know Adams and Porter had set up a private bank account using the city’s tax-exempt ID number to funnel more than $200,000 in public and private funds to their Blazers program.
He didn’t know any of this until a police investigation led to the arrests and convictions of Adams and Porter for misappropriating funds, he told councilors, making his first public comments on the controversy in months.
Having listed all that he did not know, the city’s top administrator then faced the obvious question:
Why didn’t he know?
“Some have asked, ‘How do you explain not knowing?’ This was an effort that obviously started out with good intentions,” Hugley said of the Blazers basketball team. “It started out as a good program for our local athletes. As it got more and more competitive on the road, it appears Mr. Adams and others wanted to be more competitive and win. They figured out a way around the system to make it happen.”
As the city government’s chief operating officer, “I accept full responsibility for management oversight of the day-to-day operations of the Columbus Consolidated Government,” Hugley said, adding, “Having said that, there are times when no leader or manager can anticipate criminal behavior, especially when it occurs by trusted, high-level persons. I certainly did not know about any criminal behavior.”
Had he known, he would have taken “immediate, swift action against all involved,” he said. “As I see it, management oversight does not extend to criminal behavior.”
The city’s procedures and policies designed to detect wrongdoing failed, he said, pledging a renewed fiscal accountability that would include annual ethics training for city workers.
Not over yet
Some councilors said they did not consider the controversy over.
“I want to say to the city manager I appreciate your comments this morning. I take issue with some of those comments,” said at-large Councilor Judy Thomas, who before being elected to her citywide post last year served as executive assistant to then-Mayor Jim Wetherington, who ordered the Parks and Rec investigation. “I do want to say to you that just because I am not responding specifically to things that have been said or information that has been brought to light, or asking specific questions, does not mean that as far as I’m concerned this is over and done with. There are some issues that I believe that as a council we need to address.”
Thomas later would not specify which of Hugley’s comments she was talking about, saying she needed to review what Hugley said. She did say that among the issues to be addressed is how city workers collect and deposit cash.
The police investigation revealed lax cash-handling, with uncounted money picked up in boxes and taken elsewhere to be counted and deposited.
“I share some of Councilor Thomas’ feelings about it not being over,” said District 6 Councilor Gary Allen. “There are some other questions we have, since we all were waiting to hear the city manager’s response.”
District 1 Councilor Jerry “Pops” Barnes added: “I don’t think this is sufficient enough. I appreciate your comments, Mr. City Manager, but I don’t think all this is adequate. We need to have something set up so we can respond to the concerns and the questions that the citizens have, and I think we need to be about doing that.”
Barnes thanked internal auditor John Redmond for pursuing a Parks and Rec audit that prompted Wetherington’s police investigation. When Hugley and Deputy City Manager Lisa Goodwin defended Adams in responding to that audit on June 8, 2010, Redmond caught much of the heat.
“John, you caught a lot of flak,” Barnes said. “There were a lot of accusations. I wanted to make sure I went on record to let people know that you did a thorough investigation, and I commend you, by the way, for not withering under that vicious attack, slanderous to an extent, when you were just doing the job that we positioned you to do.”
District 2 Councilor Glenn Davis reiterated that: “John, it’s sometimes a lonely arena that you operate in, for lack of a better term but you’ve got a job to do and you’ve done it well.”
Like Thomas, Allen and Barnes, Davis also said the issue was not over.
“I think there are some things that we still need to work on,” he said.
Asked whether she would say the matter was concluded, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said she would not, because such high-profile issues remain in the city’s permanent record.
“I would never say that these types of situations are over, because they become part of your history,” said the mayor, who took office in January after Wetherington retired.
District 8 Councilor C.E. “Red” McDaniel took a totally different tack, saying he thought Nike bore more responsibility for the scandal.
“On this Parks and Rec audit, I think a lot of the blame should go to Nike for not contacting the city manager about the contract,” he said. “They should have known a department head doesn’t have the authority to sign a contract.”
McDaniel said he also would have expected authorities to be tipped off by scuttlebutt about Adams’ conduct.
“I don’t understand why somebody didn’t say something, because they knew what was going on. A lot of them did,” he said. “But I don’t think anybody on this council knew. I didn’t. I didn’t get a single complaint from anybody about Parks and Rec, until this mess came up.”
But police found that some critics had complained about Parks and Rec.
Two local basketball coaches, Richard Mahone and Michael Woods, told investigators they personally complained to Hugley about Adams’ conduct. Irene Pate, a pottery instructor in the department’s cultural arts program, filed a Jan. 20, 2009, resignation letter in which she specifically complained about a lack of accountability for cash collections.
Hugley told reporters Mahone, formerly the basketball coach at Carver High School, complained only that Adams was recruiting his players. “I talked to Tony and said, ‘Are you recruiting players from Mahone to play on your team?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Hugley said.
Mahone told police his complaint led to an assistant school superintendent reprimanding him for complaining about Adams. Hugley said he had no personal knowledge of that.
The city manager had only a vague memory of Woods’ complaining that Adams wouldn’t let Woods’ competing Columbus Jaguars team use city gyms.
Hugley disputed Woods’ account that during a meeting with Adams and Hugley, Adams got up and walked out. Hugley said he would never let a department head show such disrespect.
The city manager could not recall hearing about Pate’s 2009 resignation letter.
To council the city manager tried to explain his stridently defending Adams’ while responding to Redmond’s audit last year.
“I did for Mr. Adams what I would do for any department head or city employee. I believe in fairness and due process,” he said.
He noted reporters got a copy of the draft audit before anyone in Parks and Rec had a chance to respond to its findings.
“I believe that final conclusions should be withheld until all the facts are known,” he said. “I wanted Mr. Adams and staff to have the benefit of due process.”