News

Police transcripts shed light on theater probe

But the case lacks hard evidence showing theater officials intended to steal

In an act of transparency, the Palo Alto Police Department Wednesday allowed the Weekly to view interview transcripts and other evidence collected during an 11-month investigation into financial irregularities at the Children's Theatre.

The 1,000-plus pages are the supporting documentation behind a 120-page police report released Monday. That report was written to communicate to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, not as a summary for the community, police Capt. Mark Venable said Wednesday.

The civil attorney for Children's Theatre Director Pat Briggs has cautioned the report only presents one side of the convoluted case. Attorney Jon Parsons said Briggs will be able to address many of the city's allegations — once she is clear of an administrative process relating to her possible termination.

The documents reveal previously unknown findings from the probe, which has rocked Palo Alto by accusing beloved theater officials of embezzlement — by "skimming over a prolonged period of time."

Among the many findings, the new documents show that attention shifted to the internal handling of finances almost immediately after the June 18 burglary at the theater.

The police investigation alleges that Briggs kept (or left in the theater) about $18,700 of city money since 2001.

According to a transcript of a July 8 interview, Briggs and the late Assistant Director Michael Litfin struggled to explain their system of using traveler's checks purchased with city money to pay themselves back for expenses incurred on trips with children involved in theater productions.

"We just sound totally stupid," Briggs commented at one point about their explanations, according to the transcript.

The investigation also alleges that theater staff used as much as $50,000 of additional city money improperly, in illegal misappropriations of funds. The police called into question the annual trips for theater participants led by theater staff members, sales of "surplus" costumes and the mounting of extra performances of plays for fund-raising purposes.

The city should not have paid for the trips to places such as Southern California and Atlanta, police and theater staff agreed. The nonprofit Friends of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre or the participants' parents were expected to cover the full cost of the trips to see or put on performances.

That didn't always happen, the documents reveal. For at least some trips, police Sgt. Michael Yore, the lead investigator, found no evidence that any parents paid anything.

And most of the money from the Friends had come straight from the city via costume sales or revenue from the extra performances — funds that should have gone to the city, the documents indicate.

The Friends received more than $17,000 since 2000 from such extra performances, which cost the city at least $5,550 to produce, according to Yore.

The Friends then gave this money back to the theater to pay for the trips.

Beginning at least in 2001, theater staff used a document labeled "Agreement," a type of form-based revenue contract, as authorization to transfer money from the extra performances to the Friends.

But Assistant City Attorney Don Larkin said theater staff used the incorrect form and that the City Council would have had to approve any transfers of money from the city to the Friends. The money passed through the theater's "outreach fund," a category intended to pay for its programs in local schools.

No city attorney approved the contracts, which were illegal, Larkin has said, confirming comments attributed to him in the 120-page summary of the case by Yore.

Current Administrative Services Director Lalo Perez said that, after he learned about one of these extra performances in 2004, he told Briggs to stop giving money from performances to the Friends.

But Yore discovered that several extra performances occurred after Perez talked with Briggs.

In addition, the city published an internal guide to revenue contracts in 2004 or 2005. The police investigation did not find any contracts between the Friends and the theater after that, yet the practice of staging extra performances continued.

Theater employees also billed trip expenses to non-trip accounts on several occasions, the documents show.

The police also collected the receipts, reimbursement requests and checks Briggs received related to the 126 times she submitted multiple reimbursement requests to both the Friends and the city.

On three occasions, reimbursement requests with the same receipts were submitted once to the city and three times to the Friends.

Although the documents show that Briggs makes several conflicting and incorrect statements, received multiple reimbursements for at least 126 purchases, continued permitting revenues from extra performances to go to the Friends (after being instructed not to), and followed irregular money-handling and record-keeping practices, the investigation did not provide hard evidence that she intentionally stole from the city. This purported shortcoming was reportedly a factor in the decision by the district attorney's office not to prosecute the case and take it to court.

Despite the Friends group's central role in the case, Yore chose not to interview members of the Friends' Board of Directors. Board members said they would only be interviewed with an attorney present and Yore concluded that with legal representation they would not be able to be forthcoming, according to the documents.

Police Chief Lynne Johnson said the Friends would only be interviewed as a group.

In one February interview transcript, Yore states that he needed to interview the Friends board members.

"I just need to talk to the Friends. ... You see how quickly it goes when you sit down and talk and then we leave. ... It's done," he said.

Yore also said he initially respected the theater employees' credibility.

"I trusted everybody here, too," he said.

Johnson said police intended to interview Costume Supervisor Alison Williams and Program Assistant Richard Curtis on Jan. 24, but the interview with Briggs took too long. After that, both were represented by an attorney and declined to be interviewed at all, she said.

Mayor Larry Klein, the attorney handling Litfin's estate, has contested his portrayal in the 120-page report, in which Yore stated he and state Sen. Joe Simitian (executor of Litfin's estate) were "reluctant" to turn over to police additional traveler's checks Simitian reportedly discovered in Litfin's condominium after his death. The checks were apparently missed by a police search in late January.

The basis for Yore's conclusion of reluctance, according to the transcript of a February interview, was that Klein told Yore he believed the checks were Litfin's property. Yore then said they were subject to a search warrant and he agreed to fax the warrant to Klein, who then turned over the checks.

The 120-page police report is posted online at http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/depts/pol/

Related material:

Benest may have initiated detectives' Texas trip

Theater investigation focused on 'skimming'

TIMELINE: Children's Theatre investigation

ARCHIVE: Children's Theatre investigation

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 6, 2008 at 10:14 am

Briggs said "We just sound totally stupid". One thing she got right, and there are many totally stupid people running this show and the City.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Truth hurts
a resident of another community
on Jun 6, 2008 at 1:56 pm

Parent,

Well said.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by William
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 6, 2008 at 1:59 pm

> But the case lacks hard evidence showing theater
> officials intended to steal

The police report is entitled: "Embezzlement" -- not "stealing".

The definition of "embezzlement" is:

to appropriate fraudulently to one's own use, as money or
property entrusted to one's care.

This is what the police investigated, and have documented quite well.

It's a shame the Weekly has not taken the time to look up this word, "embezzlement", as the word "stealing" is not to be found in the police report.

The definition of "stealing" is:

given to or characterized by theft.

While there is an overlap between these two words, they represent two different acts. The Weekly seems to be working very hard to misdirect the attention of the public away from the information in the police report.

There is one final definition we need to look up for what's going on here--and that word is "whitewash""

anything, as deceptive words or actions, used to cover up
or gloss over faults, errors, or wrongdoings, or absolve a
wrongdoer from blame.

It's a real shame that the police were not able to complete their investigation into this matter--as there are still many avenues that need to be traveled and documented.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 6, 2008 at 2:02 pm

What's so transparent about this?
It's just the Weekly's (Jay's) opinion of Sgt Yore's opinion.
(talk about the blind leading the dumb)
We haven't heard from any of the "accused" yet.
Senor Blogger


 +   Like this comment
Posted by a concerned observer
a resident of another community
on Jun 6, 2008 at 3:54 pm

First the Utilities Dept. scandal, then the PACT scandal. And so much of the top-level management is retiring/running off to new jobs. Which department is next on the scandal list?? Who else has not been doing due diligence?? Allowing bureaucracy to grow and fester propagates corruption like this. Is this the beginning/continuation of a pattern??? Open your eyes, Citizens of Palo Alto!! Time to face the actual truth, not the bubble you have spun around yourselves…


 +   Like this comment
Posted by lazlo toth
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 6, 2008 at 7:40 pm

How sad all of you only have time to write about city employees. Here we are in the heart of the Silicon Valley and y'all find time to write about employees who make about the same amount a year as a cheap BMW. If this is the only news in Palo Alto God help us! How pathetic! Go outside a take a deep breath of fresh air! Turn off your laptops! Enjoy life!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 7, 2008 at 12:31 am

Small time crooks got away with it under the guise of being "artistic" and "impractical." One idiot defends them by saying that they like to "hoard" things, equating their scheme of holding back the travellers checks with saving old programs and invitations.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by William
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 7, 2008 at 8:00 am

> y'all find time to write about employees who make
> about the same amount a year as a cheap BMW.

From another newspapers report on the key player's salaries:
---
City salary records released in October show that Litfin received $21,350 in overtime pay during the 2006-07 fiscal year in addition to his annual salary of $81,915. Williams brought home an almost identical amount, $21,224, in overtime on top of her $76,750 salary.

Litfin and Williams came in 62nd and 63rd, respectively, in the city's list of top overtime earners.

Briggs, who made $103,993 last year, did not earn any overtime pay because she is a manager.
---

These folks are not underpaid "public servants".


 +   Like this comment
Posted by fireman
a resident of another community
on Jun 7, 2008 at 10:18 am

Parent. Who would be the more STUPID? The people running this CITY, OR the people who do nothing to stop them. Also buying there weak excuses(not reasons)for how disfunctional this CITY has become. There has to be a reason all these ISSUES keep popping up.
There is no excuse that can explain away all the issues of total ineptness that runs lose in this City and through out the COUNCIL.

This City's leaders and Council have a long history of mismanageing public funds and abusing the power that the public has given them.
Then the public attacks the messanger for the truth is just too much for many to accept?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by anon.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2008 at 10:34 pm

If this was any other city, the City Auditory would also be fired. Remember the San Jose scandal? I think Morton should be kicked off City Council as well for trying to stop the investigation. Conflict of interest.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 8, 2008 at 10:52 pm

Good grief! The comments here that attack someone who has not been found guilty of a crime are astoundingly crass. Who are these small-time zealots, anyway? Lazlo Toth is right. Go out and get some air, people!


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