In Hands Of An Auditor
December 20, 1998
WEST COUNTY TIMES
* WHILE POLICE CLAIMED TO HAVE FOUND NO CRIME, RESOLUTION OF PROBE HINGES ON AUDITORIUM PAPERWORK
Sunday, December 20, 1998
RICHMOND When city officials announced
in September that police had discovered no evidence of a crime in the
city's Recreation and Cultural Services Department, they did so knowing
the investigation was far from over.
Investigators still had to pore over
mounds of dusty city documents, crunch numbers and analyze reams of
financial data. The process was obviously a laborious one and would take
several more months. And investigators were sure that if a crime was
going to be found, the evidence would be in the records.
Despite that, city officials quickly put a triumphant spin on what had become a growing embarrassment. The district attorney and Richmond police issued a press release saying the preliminary investigation found no evidence of a crime, and City Manager Isiah Turner said he was relieved: "Nobody wanted to be confronted with the reality that there could have been criminal wrongdoing in that department."
Now, some are critical of the city's haste. They contend it was an effort by the city to cover its tracks and quell public fears about the investigation.
"I think it was probably designed to make us feel better, but it didn't," said longtime resident Ellie Strauss, a critic of the city's handling of the case. "I think for most people it just made us even more upset and suspicious and concerned that there was a big cover-up."
The September announcement came just 44 days after the criminal investigation had been called for by the City Council and newly appointed City Manager Turner.
Turner, in office for less than three months, was under fire for the July 17 resignation of Brad Baxter, former manager of the recreation department.
Turner said Baxter had been asked to resign for lying on his job application.
But Baxter said the city ousted him for trying to uncover years of financial misconduct and mismanagement in the department.
Police collected and locked up auditorium records, but never looked at them. Their probe was confined to interviews of up to 30 people, mostly city employees and others who had done business at the auditorium. The records were to be handled by Dale Stephens, an outside auditor and expert in fraud detection.
Stephens was still examining the files when police announced they had not found enough evidence to prosecute. Police said they expected to close the case shortly. They did, however, acknowledge the records were a mess and said a secondary inquiry into how the center was managed and funds collected was under way.
Turner said city leaders felt they were accurate in their September assessment of the investigation based on the information they had from police.
"The police felt as though they did a comprehensive investigation as far as interviewing witnesses," Turner later said. "I felt as though I was going to the best authority. They're the experts, not this office."
But some residents and City Council members weren't happy with the outcome of the police probe.
"I just kind of had the idea that they weren't out to solve a crime," Councilman Tom Butt said. "They were just going through the motions of an investigation. I think, generally speaking, city employees don't relish the thought of digging up dirt on each other. I think what they'd like to do is put this behind them and move on."
And while city leaders were focusing public attention on promises to improve the beleaguered department, behind the scenes, Stephens was just beginning a complex examination of a paper trail that would be key to the criminal probe. His search of the records is not complete. It may be finished in January, police said.
Police still have an open file on the case, and they are monitoring Stephens' progress. Should he come up with anything, they will put together a case for prosecution by the District Attorney's Office.
"To say that it's over is not true," said police Capt. Doug Sieberling. "There's still that potential out there, but we won't know until Dale's done with it whether anything's going to come out of it."
"Stephens is looking in more depth at the auditorium to see whether or not there was any criminal wrongdoing," Turner said. "He could find some other information."
Some council members declined to comment on the criminal probe. Others acknowledged that there are problems with the department's accounting procedures but stopped short of questioning the preliminary results of the criminal investigation.
"If anything's ever found that's suspected to be criminal, I believe that the Police Department will act on it," Councilman Alex Evans said.
"They indicated they found nothing. That doesn't mean there's nothing there," Councilman Nat Bates said. "What (Stephens) finds is the most important thing."
Residents watching the city's actions in this case said they are hoping for the best but believe the city is keeping the public in the dark.
"We're all hoping that the city will get a better foundation," said Doris Brown, a longtime Parchester Village resident. "I think everybody's a little afraid at this point. But then also I look at our City Council and I think, Well, no wonder people are perplexed.'"