Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 29, 2008

Police theater probe reaches back to early 1990s

Leon Kaplan, former city director of Arts & Culture Division, questioned in Texas by Palo Alto police detective

by Jay Thorwaldson

Leon Kaplan, who for two dozen years supervised the Palo Alto Children's Theatre operation until he retired in 2004, disclosed this week that a Palo Alto police detective and a forensic accountant flew to Texas in mid-November, unannounced, to interview him about possible financial crimes or irregularities in the theater.

Questions indicated the police investigation was reaching back to the early 1990s. That's when the Friends of the Children's Theatre support group was involved in the $1 million-plus expansion and renovation of the theater in a complex temporary ownership-transfer agreement with the city, Kaplan said.

His disclosure is the first hint the police probe reaches back beyond a reported theft last June.

Police officials have disclosed few details of the probe other than to say it involves "tens of thousands of dollars."

In a telephone interview with the Weekly from his office in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, Texas, where he manages the Department of Parks and Recreation, Kaplan said he is positive to "a moral certainty" that the top staff at the theater are not guilty of criminal behavior. Acknowledging he does not know the details of the investigation, Kaplan said the nature of the questions he was asked underscored his conviction that the investigation is off base — "and cruel," he added.

Director Pat Briggs, Assistant Director Michael Litfin, Costume Supervisor Alison Williams and Program Assistant Rich Curtis were abruptly placed on paid administrative leave Jan. 24, and the theater was closed while police searched the offices.

Litfin, who had been under chemotherapy treatment for cancer, died a week later.

Kaplan said one day in mid-November there was a knock on his office door, and Sgt. Michael Yore, accompanied by a forensic accountant, announced he was conducting a criminal investigation "and I was going to be surprised by what I was going to hear."

He said Yore informed him of a theft in June and said that "red flags" began surfacing, with additional items turning up missing, including traveler's checks.

Kaplan said there were four lines of questioning: the revamping of the theater 15 or more years ago; annual pre-Halloween sales of old costumes by the Friends group to raise funds for the theater; trips Briggs and other staff took the young actors on, to places such as Ashland, Ore., or Los Angeles; and a blank purchase order with Kaplan's signature that turned up in a search.

Kaplan said he doesn't believe he is a suspect in the investigation, but if he is "they know where to find me." He attended Litfin's funeral in Palo Alto this month.

Kaplan said he explained the early 1990s ownership-transfer arrangement, which took a year of negotiations to set up and was subjected to extensive legal review, involving attorneys representing both the city and the Friends.

The Friends raised more than $1 million to do the two-phase redevelopment, consisting of refurbishing the theater itself and adding air conditioning and later expanding areas of the complex so more children could participate in the productions.

The "pubic-private partnership" was the first done by the city and since has become a model being discussed for renovating the city's Art Center, Junior Museum and Zoo, among others.

The rebuilding was done entirely with donated funds in the face of heavy skepticism on the part of top-level city administrators that the Friends could raise a million dollars "by selling brownies and hot dogs and lemonade," Kaplan said. But they received some foundation grants and major donations from individuals and much help in volunteered professional services to accomplish the goal.

On the costumes question, "I chuckled and said I take personal responsibility" for the sales, Kaplan said. "Pat had the philosophy that everything constructed is retained and salvaged for future use, and they had been doing that since the theater was originally opened," long before Briggs started in the early 1960s. But storage space was running out and costumes were deteriorating with age.

"She was adamant. ... She was loathe to throw anything away," Kaplan said. After talking it over, Kaplan and Briggs decided the surplus costumes would be given to the Friends each year and sold to raise funds that eventually would come back to the theater, he said.

The arrangement was reviewed by the city attorney's office for adherence to an overall city surplusing policy, and each year Briggs would individually list all costumes that were to be surplused — until she was asked by the city's purchasing department to be more general in her accounting of them.

"We were able to thin out storage, which was my goal, and allow the Friends to earn some money, which was their goal," Kaplan recalled.

He said he was a bit unsettled by Yore's response.

"When I was telling the story to Yore, he challenged me and said, 'Don't you think that is essentially embezzlement?'" Kaplan recalled.

"There are many examples in the city where surplusing occurs, not the least of which is the Friends of the Library" with its annual sale of surplused books, Kaplan noted.

A third track of questions related to missing traveler's checks, some of which later turned up in Briggs's cluttered office, the Weekly has learned.

Kaplan said the trips were well-known and paid for entirely by the young participants in the theater program, or their parents. Staff members also paid for their own expenses and hotel rooms, he said — although they were on city time on weekdays.

"I do recall that Pat would collect the money from the kids for the trips, and she would turn that money in to the city and get traveler's checks in return to cover hotels, food and incidental expenses," Kaplan said.

He said he was initially puzzled by the blank purchase request with his signature on it, produced by the forensic accountant. But he said he later recalled needing to leave for a trip to Sugar Land and did sign some blank purchase orders for Briggs to fill out during his absence.

"I signed it because I trusted Pat completely, and still do," he said, expanding his confidence to other staff members.

"It is from my 24 years of experience with Pat and Michael and Alison that my faith comes into play," he said. "In my heart of hearts I know with a moral certainty that the Children's Theatre staff are not guilty of any crime and how this has been handled is just plain cruel.

"Even if there were administrative procedures that need to be examined and corrected, this is way too harsh. It could have been handled in a much more humane and honest way."

He said Yore asked him not to call theater staff members about the interview, and "I did honor that." When he was notified by another city staff member of Litfin's diagnosis of cancer, "my instinct was to call Pat and ask her to give Michael my love," Kaplan said. But the next day police closed the theater and he was not able to contact her.

Asked if he might be at risk of being drawn into the investigation, Kaplan said he has thought about that.

"I've never done anything wrong. But these seem to be strange times. They know where to find me."

During his tenure with the city, Kaplan emerged as one of the leaders of a failed effort to organize middle managers.

He said he told Yore about a "climate of fear" that had penetrated the city middle-management staff.

"I was not a big union person myself and had a lot of affection for the city. But the climate had changed so dramatically" under the administration of City Manager Frank Benest that "it became clear we needed someone to protect our interests," he said.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by kevin, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 1, 2008 at 11:26 am

I don't understand the issue with the travelers checks. Were they current from the most reecent trip to atlanta in 2006, or were they from the mid 90s or something? were they issued to pat from her personal account, or were they issued to the theatre? i thought travelers checks had an expiration date on them.
Can someone explain the significance?


Posted by phil harmonic, a resident of another community
on Mar 1, 2008 at 2:51 pm

It is so funny how you want to Demonize and Judge Guilty of a 'CRIME" the Pillars of your Community that are beyond reproach and have given their Lives to enrich the Lives of the children of your town. Perhaps reviewing the cash management is more important than viewing a Children's Theatre Play.Hey "failure-starts-at-the-top" when was the last time you attended a Children's theatre Play? Years ? Never? You have alluded to the staff stealing or committing a crime.They are innocent until proven guilty. This kind of defamation of their Character has got to stop! What a Joke. It is the City's job to support the theatre no matter what.Quibble about some meager amounts of money when the real crime is the Keystone Cops bungling this investigation and discrediting by proxy, wasting time and money with no charges for How Long? This is your local community you are hurting! These are the Heroes and Sheroes of Palo Alto. The ones that Keep kids off the street, give vision and inspiration to the young, provide a place "TO BE OR NOT TO BE". What is the monetary value in giving personal inner strength to conquer any challenge in life? What is the monetary value in a kind compassionate voice telling you "it will be OK just do your best" These people Have given freely and lovingly for years and years to their dying day. Money? Burn it You cannot buy what these people have given they are worth ten times their salaries and anbody close to the theatre knows that. You penny pincher's want control? You want obedience? Get a Dog. Do not ruin a true and real gem of the Palo Alto experience. Oops, too late you already did!!!


Posted by hebner chen, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2008 at 12:16 pm

you rich people need to quit being so freaking cheap. .what a bunch of penny pinchers. Support the theater, support the arts, if you're so concerned about the finances, why doesnt the city have these forensic accountants working on all city projects providing oversight? The city at large has an enormous budget far in excess of a paltry 1M here or there, how many hundreds of thousands or millions are being skimmed off the top there? From steering contracts to minority contractors and relatives, to buying political favors, there is plenty of room for corruption at city hall and everyone knows it. heck, the unions steal three times that every time they form one of their conspiracies to hold up the citizens for more whatever it is they want.


Posted by ps, a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 5, 2008 at 12:18 pm

also, how much does it cost to fly two people to TX to conduct an interview that could have been done over the phone. Talk about a waste of taxpayer money. Why are we paying to fly police and accountants halfway across the country when there are phones and computers? what the hell is wrong with this picture? and they're worried about a few blank PO's? Heck, the PO's were found, and they were blank, whats the problem...they werent even used!


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