Uploaded: Tue, May 6, 2008, 2:16 am
Enough's enough, theater supporters say
Messiness, not nefariousness, behind financial discrepancies, supporters say
The Palo Alto Children's Theatre community continued to rally behind the 76-year-old institution and its staff members Monday night, despite recent revelations that police suspect Director Pat Briggs, the late Assistant Director Michael Litfin and Costume Supervisor Alison Williams of embezzlement.
Briggs and Litfin were messy, but they would have never consciously stolen money, former theater parent Charles Junkerman, an associate provost at Stanford, told the City Council.
"We have big apologies to make to two wonderful people," Junkerman said.
The staff members worked much more than they were paid, Palo Altan Judy Andrews said.
"They have given much more than whatever they are accused of — they have given their heart and soul," Andrews said.
"I know there is no criminal intent. There may be some sloppy accounting — that's the way the Children's Theatre ran — but that was part of the charm of the place."
A core group of theater supporters have maintained a constant weekly vigil at the council meetings since Jan. 24, when the theater was closed and four of its six staff members were placed on paid administrative leave for a "financial crimes" investigation.
Last week, search warrant affidavits were released, showing that police suspected embezzlement.
Twelve people spoke in favor of the theater and its staff Monday, no one spoke dagainst it. The council members cannot comment on issues addressed during its public-comment period.
Robert Smith told the council he hasn't spoken about the matter publicly before.
He urged the council to return Briggs, Williams and Program Assistant Rich Curtis to their jobs and allow them to speak to the media and others.
"Find a way to bring this to a close. Either indict or shut down the investigation," Smith said. "This has come to a point of diminishing returns."
"I feel that individuals are all imperfect and sometimes we get so wrapped up in an investigation that we just can't stop. This needs to stop."
"I feel so hopeless, powerless," one upset woman told the council. "My son benefited so much from the Children's Theatre. … We should move out of this city."
Another theatre mother credited Briggs, Litfin, Williams, Curtis and the theater for saving her severely depressed daughter's life.
If the staff members aren't going to return, the city still has amends to make, another supporter said.
"I hope you'll come to grips with this and give them some honor and tell them, 'You were valuable, you did great,' because that's the truth."
• ARCHIVE: Children's Theatre investigation
Posted by Richard Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on May 7, 2008 at 1:59 pm
This is the letter I have sent to the City Council today, with copies to Mr. Benest and Police Chief Johanson.
Dear Council Members,
I have decided to comment on the situation involving the Children's Theater. Information I use here comes from the various articles in the San Jose Mercury News, the Palo Alto Daily and the Palo Alto Weekly, beginning when this story first appeared in public. I have also read the comments in the Palo Alto Forum Online.
The public, esp those members of the public closely aligned with the Children's Theater (CT) seems mostly concerned that the police investigation implies that the senior theater staff are guilty of some level of criminal activity, and that given their decades of dedicated work with our children, this is unfair and uncalled for. Blame is placed therefore, not on possible wrong doing by someone, but on the police whose job it is to investigate such allegations and findings.
My take is this: Mostly likely, though not positively, the senior theater directors are not guilty of criminal intent, but of stupidity in the management of substantial amounts of taxpayer funds over a long period of time. Regardless of their dedication to the theater and their love of the children and of how many "stars" they have produced and lives they have saved, none of this is relevant to their
absolute responsibility to manage the financial aspects of their jobs in a proper, generally accepted standard of accounting. That is one reason why they are paid such high salaries. If they know how to request a travel advance, they should know how to account for how it was spent.
But the real scandal here lies not with the senior theater team. Let's assume that they are basically artists managing a small town children's theater, producing local programs which are loved and well received by the community. Clearly, however, none of them are ever going to manage, lets say the Metropolitan Opera Company, nor should we expect that level of management skills. Hence, the city government which supports this enterprise must provide the level of expertise and oversight that any government operation requires, "beloved institution" or otherwise. This clearly has not been done. For example, proper accounting procedures should require that an advance of funds is never given as long as the previous advance has not be properly reconciled with full justification and proof of how the money was spent. Such an advance must be accompanied with a list of
instructions as to what is an allowable expense and what is not. Basic common sense tells one that company money is NEVER mixed with personal accounts. To do so opens one up to serious question when regular audits take place. When I had my own company, of which I was sole owner, my tax account would have blown a gasket if I mixed company funds with my personal accounts, and my many clients would have been rightly appalled if they discovered that I did, since the company was responsible for managing many tens of thousands of dollars of their money.
Mr. Benest's recent public comment that accounting procedures were lax because the CT is a "beloved institution" are grounds for immediate dismissal in my opinion. To even make such a statement indicates a level of incompetence that simply cannot be tolerated in such a high level management position where hundreds of millions of dollars are under his control and direction. Since he is leaving at the end of June, under no circumstances should he be permitted to remain until a replacement is found, not should he be given a going away bonus. The Utility Department scandal and now the CT scandal rest ultimately on his shoulders and he must be held accountable. Council Members, this is one situation where you would be justified in calling in an independent outside auditor group to audit the entire city, to discover what other kind of "scandals" lie buried in the rubble of years of very poor city management.
Nor are you Council Members off the hook. One of your most important tasks is the proper management of the taxpayers funds. In this case, I am surprised to learn that two members of the Council are engaging in serious conflicts of interest vis a vis the CT. Mayor Klein is probate officer of the Litfin estate, and CM Morton has done accounting for the theater Friends group. Since the CT is a city operation, no CM should be professionally involved with any aspect of this
organization or of its senior directors. Does anyone besides me see the irony of Morton, a professional accountant, doing accounting for the Friends group? I expect these two CMs to recuse themselves from any further Council involvement, meetings or discussion where the CT is the subject. Nor should they make further public statements about this case. They cannot serve two masters, we taxpayers and a city agency in trouble at the same time.
Finally, Chief Johnson should be commended for following through with this investigation, even though it may be a bit slow and heavy handed - this is her job after all. The senior CT team should either be charged and then sent to trial, or taken off leave and allowed to return to their jobs. A complete audit should be taken of the CT and they need to be given thorough training on how to handle city money. Hopefully the new city manager will have much more professional standards in place than has been the case under the present administration. The CT team needs to make a public apology to the residents of this town and to the children they serve for being so stupid in handling this aspect of their job.
Hopefully everyone has learned a lesson from all this.
Richard C. Placone