Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 13, 2008

Children's Theatre director 'devastated and baffled'

Palo Alto police chief releases update on investigation at beloved institution

by Jay Thorwaldson and Don Kazak

Director of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre Pat Briggs, who was put on administrative leave in late January, is "devastated and baffled" by the Palo Alto Police Department's investigation into alleged financial crimes at the theater, her attorney, Diane de Seve, said Saturday.

"The outpouring of support from the community really reflects the kind of moral compass Pat has, and she would never do anything intentionally to harm the Children's Theatre," said de Seve, who works in the Palo Alto law firm of Nolan, Armstrong & Barton.

De Seve said she wanted to "encourage the community to keep the pressure on so we get a swift resolution and get Pat back into the theater where she belongs."

On Saturday, supporters of the Children's Theatre did just that, rallying in front of City Hall. Nearly 100 people, some in costumes, showed up to voice support for the theater's suspended staff and to question the police investigation.

Some participants held up signs, including "We (heart) Michael," a reference to the late Assistant Director Michael Litfin, who died Feb. 1. He had been undergoing treatment for cancer, but the precise cause of death has not been announced.

De Seve's statement followed a Friday press release from police Chief Lynne Johnson, which disclosed that "tens of thousands of dollars" are involved in the investigation.

Johnson's letter says department investigators are working "tirelessly through their days off and on weekends to complete a thorough and objective case as fast as possible." She added that the department understands the importance of the theater to the community.

Johnson said the investigation to date has included:

- Witness and employee interviews.

- Review and analysis of thousands of city documents and e-mails.

- Search warrants served on numerous employee bank accounts (with the average turnaround time for obtaining information from these searches being six to eight weeks).

- Search warrants served on three employees' homes and a number of storage lockers, including one belonging to the Friends of the Children's Theatre, a nonprofit support group.

At Monday night's City Council meeting, the Friends asked to be cleared in the investigation.

"We've been dragged into the mess although we have done nothing wrong," said Paula Collins, president of the Friends.

The theater was abruptly closed late in the afternoon of Jan. 24 and four full-time staff members — including Briggs and Litfin — were placed on administrative leave, with pay, by City Manager Frank Benest.

The theater remained closed for four days but is operating again.

"I asked for the closure in order to secure specific areas of the Theatre to maintain the chain of evidence for the investigation," Johnson wrote in her letter to the community.

The chief also referred to Litfin's illness and death:

"All of us at the Police Department are saddened by the passing of Michael Litfin. He was a valued employee who contributed greatly to the Children's Theatre. On the day of the theater closure, Mr. Litfin voluntarily came into the Police Department and wanted to give a statement. Due to his illness, my investigators did not want him to have to wait, so he was sent home. When we were made aware of the seriousness of his condition, we chose not to interview him."

Finally, Johnson wrote about the sensitivity of the investigation:

"I understand that this investigation is extremely sensitive and emotional. The Children's Theatre is a long-standing and valued institution in our community. The beloved staff have provided years of incredible service to the youth in Palo Alto. This investigation will not overshadow those achievements."

Johnson ended the letter noting that some updates on the investigation may be released, but "due to the complexity of the investigation, I will not be able to answer many of the community's questions until the conclusion of the investigation."

De Seve criticized Johnson's statement, saying it "doesn't add much to tell what the investigation is about, and I think that it's obvious that after seven months they still don't have a case together that they're still spinning their wheels to make a case."

De Seve also represented Litfin, who retained her by Saturday, Jan. 26. Litfin had confided to the Weekly the previous day that he felt he had to hire an attorney and said he was very angry about the investigation. He said he had reported thefts and even called police a few days before Jan. 24 to inquire about the status of the investigation.

That Saturday, de Seve contacted Det. Michael Yore, who is heading the investigation, and "put him on notice that Michael was represented by counsel and was not to be questioned."

But on the following Monday, Litfin was contacted by Det. Mark Venable, who asked him to come in for questioning, de Seve said.

"On Tuesday I again put Det. Yore on notice not to question Michael," she said.

Litfin, who had been undergoing chemotherapy for stomach cancer, had earlier told the Weekly that he was optimistic about his cancer and his prognosis was 55 to 60 percent positive.

Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com. Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Gene, a resident of Community Center
on Feb 12, 2008 at 9:46 pm

It does not take 6-8 weeks to look at one's bank account. I just went on-line to Bank of America and can go back a very long time and see every check I've written - both sides - and all my on-line payments through on-line bill pay.


Posted by but gene, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 12, 2008 at 10:40 pm

but gene, aren't you glad its not that easy for a third party?


Posted by Leslie, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 13, 2008 at 7:53 am

Yes, you may be able to see your own credit history but that information is encrypted, only you can see it. I can believe it will take Police six weeks, probably longer, to get the information they need from bank accounts. Banks do a good job of protecting your private financial information.


Posted by William Liberatore, a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 14, 2008 at 7:28 am

What a disgusting and embarrassing thing this all is for the City of Palo Alto. The hardest working most dedicated people I have ever known being persecuted in the papers for NOTHING because someone at City Hall decides they are going to find a way to get them out. First it was overtime, now it's stolen property. STOLEN PROPERTY! Give me a break. I can only pray that a new President turns this country around. We now all live and work in a community where a press release replaces the constitution and the judicial system. All we need is a press agent and we can publish lies about anyone. There should be such a huge public outcry that this was not handled discreetly until there was PROOF. Proof, hell how about a conviction? I can only pray that Pat and Allison and Rich can feel all the love and support there is out here for them. For the City of Palo Alto, I join the throngs of people who feel nothing but disgust.
Sunday is the celebration of Michael's life. He thank God is out of the misery of this despicable situation. I for one am really looking forward to having the chance to sing and celebrate everything that is true about Pat and Michael and Allison and Rich and the Children's Theatre. I hope many of you will join us.
Grateful I am no longer a Palo Alto resident,
Billy Liberatore


Posted by Me Too, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 14, 2008 at 8:08 am

Yeah, Billy, we're kind of glad you left too. Thanks.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2008 at 8:57 am

I have heard Bush blamed for a lot of things, but for the life of me I can't see how he can be blamed for whatever has happened at PACT.


Posted by Zippy the Pinhead, a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2008 at 6:15 pm

I'll take a crack at explaining how Bush could in some microscopic way be partially responsible.

You see, politics always evolve and there are constant ebbs and flows to how much it can pervade the lives of its citizens.

Right now, we're flowing.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have in essence revolutionized the playbooks of how a President communicates and presides. Both have basically undermined the ability of the free press to do its job effectively and the fact that the media has reached unprecedented levels in doing whatever they can to make money (through their own sketchy moral tendency of sensationalization) has made this possible.

George W Bush in particular has found ways to create a climate through his contacts and acolytes within the media and by appointing them to key positions of power to circumvent due process. Love him or hate him, it's a fact.

We live in odd times.

The mere fact that any Presidential candidate can make unchecked and out-of-context claims against their competitors without repercussion runs in opposition to the much higher standard that almost any other company that runs advertising must adhere to.

If a chewing gum company made equivalent derogatory claims against a competitor, they would be severely dealt with and pay a large penalty and their ads would be pulled.

When this atmosphere is tolerated, by the media and the general populace, it trickles down to many other forms of government, right down to the city level.

Politicians have long set the moral tone for their constituents but even moreso for the state and city politicans who admire them.

Which brings us to the current situation:

Even if you were somehow the sworn enemy of the quartet there at the Children's Theatre, the treatment they have received has absolutely no resemblance to the traditional American values of due process or to the presumption of innocence.

It is, in a nutshell, the method of the investigation in Palo Alto is entirely similar to how both the current Bush administration and the former Clinton administration have treated both their enemies and the pawns who get in the way of whatever their true agenda is.









Posted by Me Too, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 14, 2008 at 7:38 pm

Yep, pin head is about right. What are you talking about?

They've been treated appropriately for city employees who apparently are suspects in a felony investigation related to their duties. The city placed them on (presumably) paid leave. They re-opened the theatre after a weekend.

Who exactly has maligned or even criticized them? Can you show me? Instead I see the opposite - partisans crying "how dare they" when the police and the city do their job.

In any case, it all has zippy to do with Clinton and Bush (good grief) and a lot to do with Palo Alto.


Posted by Newark, a resident of another community
on Feb 16, 2008 at 12:49 am

Dear Charleston Gardens,

I understand where Zippy was coming from and believe he had carefully laid out the pretext to prevent a post such as yours.

Admittedly, the writing was a bit abtruse for the average reader.

For your edification, the theatre was closed for eight days and to this day is still not operating at anywhere approximating full capacity. You are correct in stating that it was shut down for a weekend, but it is a terribly misleading statement.

A play has already been cancelled and children that would have been participating are no longer involved.

The malign or criticism toward the quartet is inherent in the actions of those that ordered the investigation without having their ducks in a row first.

As you must surely know, no one would dare slander or libel them if they thought they might come out of this innocent----being that it would expose them to legal issues, so your assessment that they have not come under fire is a bit ridiculous.

Here is where we are now at:

As of Saturday the 16th, we will be in Day 23 of an investigation which so far has yielded absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of any of the staff members.

They have combed the theatre, gone through homes, looked in computers and are now in a rather awkwardly lengthy process to survey the employee's bank records.

If it turns out that the quartet is found innocent, do you feel that the surviving three should just shrig their shoulders and go back to work without complaint?

What would you do if in the shoes of being someone who came under identical suspicion?

If they kept you away from your work for 3-6 weeks, would you stay home without complaint as they went through your possessions and computer and storage unit?

Would you have no problem with that as long as they labeled you a suspect first?

Eventually, the initial evidence that led to this investigation should come to light so that we may all determine whether warrants were warranted.

Hopefully, we will all be non-partisan on that day.












Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2008 at 10:40 am

At this stage, I would imagine that anyone who is innocent of any crime would be pleased to get their name cleared. At present, there are many people who are assuming that the three or four involved are completely innocent. However, their names are tarnished in the community. It would be best for them if the guilty parties, if any, are found or the misunderstanding completely cleared up, so that they can get on with their lives regardless of how that will unwrap.

Most of us do not have to live our lives in a gold fish bowl. Those who work with children, have to do so to some extent. Usually we are concerned about child molesting, but anyone who works with children must be squeaky clean in all aspects of their lives. This scrutiny, although may seem harsh, must be done now to clear their names.


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