Enough's enough, theater supporters say Crimes & Incidents, posted by Editor, Palo Alto Online, on May 6, 2008 at 7:01 am
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.
Posted by fireman, a resident of another community, on May 6, 2008 at 8:06 am
henry, only common people pay for there mistakes,, Not the ones above the law.
What is even more of an insult to us all, is the huge salaries and benefits these people make and take with them. When they move on to there next VICTIMS.... Because no one has made them ACCOUNTABLE...
Posted by Ernest Kinsolving, a resident of another community, on May 6, 2008 at 8:55 am
I am gratified, as always, to see that the majority of responsible public comment about this situation jibes with the evidence that I am personally acquainted with: that the staff of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre are dedicated servants of the children of our community, and that the only likely misbehavior they've engaged in is a lack of organization and formality.
I also find it interesting that people consistently post comments in these forums anonymously, railing against the theatre staff, accusing them of high crimes and misdemeanors and demanding swift punishment, yet the only people who are willing to stand up in a public forum and have their comments made part of the public record have nothing but praise for Michael, Pat, Alison and Rich.
If you have a legitimate complaint against these people, based in fact, please air it in a forum where anonymity does not shield you and take responsibility for the things that you say.
Posted by Not Mr. Konsolving, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on May 6, 2008 at 9:19 am
Even the nicest of people make mistakes. However, making the same mistake over and over for years to the personal enrichment of over $10,000 sure sounds fishy to me. Way more than "a lack of organization and formality". That is evidence I am aquainted with.
As to the comments that these people can't respond, excuse me but Ms. Brigg's attorney has responded more than once. Speaking for her. The others could do the same. No one is being "silenced".
Anonimity is a way of protecting yourself from unwanted contact. I prefer to use this forum - only - for this discussion. It doesn't diminish my legitimacy or logic.
Once you creat your new forum which requires personal identification you can do as you please there. This forum is not intended for that format.
Posted by Sean Mahoney, a resident of another community, on May 6, 2008 at 9:54 am
Let me say upfront that as a former participant and employee I feel 100% confident there was no criminal intent even if there was poor accounting in this case. That being said, without criminal intent there is no case. If the PAPD hasn't found some sort of intent by now its time to drop this and apologize.
There are a lot of people who post very spirited attacks on this site and others. It seems to me like they are outraged that the PACT actually has a significant budget and that it appears that the city's Arts & Culture Department was either remiss in their accounting or the City Manager's office wasnt communicating accounting policies to the Arts & Culture Dept. and in turn to the Theatre (let's not forget this is municipal government and there is plenty of beaurocracy). Residents that do not take advantage of the Theatre should realize that the PACT sells tickets to shows for $8 for adults and $4 for children. Further, it is one of the only such groups for children that doesn't charge the children (or their parents) to participate. The Theatre is truly there as a service to the community and the expansion of services and quality of output has warranted a large budget over the years.
Further, I think Palo Alto Online may want to follow up with a story on where the parties in this controversy stand. I was able to communicate with a city council member shortly after this story broke and learned (what I probably should have already known) that the city council has no power to intervene in the investigation. They can try to examine the invesitgation after the police department drops it, and if they find overzealous prosecution they should be able to get rid of the city manager (who has control over the police department and other city agencies) but that doesnt go all that far seeing as the current city manager, Frank Benest, is on the way out as it is.
In my opinion the city manager and police department need to charge the employees and let them defend themselves or close this investigation up like it appears they should. Once this happens the city council needs to investigate this whole affair and if the city manager's office, the police department, or the Division of Arts & Culture acted improperly then actions should be taken. And most of all, we owe all of the staff at the Theatre a huge apology and our continued gratitude for years of selfless service (as those of us who have knowledge on the subject know well).
Posted by Aaron, a resident of the Southgate neighborhood, on May 6, 2008 at 11:28 am
'You were valuable, you did great,' because that's the truth." "They have given much more than whatever they are accused of — they have given their heart and soul," Andrews said
-I know that both of the above statments are true; however, what would happen at my job if I sloppily, haphazardly, did my timecards and my paycheck. Sure, I feel I deserve more and does anyone really make "what they deserve?" As another post mentioned above, these people will never be prosecuted because this is a political issue. At a minimum they should make a public apology for their sloppy book keeping and restore back to the city what they have wrongfully taken, even if some of the people think they deserve it.
Posted by Bob, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on May 6, 2008 at 2:45 pm
I side with Aaron. In private industry employees are not allowed to get away with sloppy bookkeeping for even a month let alone seven years.
What puzzles me is why the money they got as advances from the taxpayers (City) went into their private bank accounts and then some withdrawn for trips, etc. Salaries go into private accounts. Taxpayers' money goes into separate accounts.
Posted by JA3+, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on May 6, 2008 at 5:41 pm
No matter the outcome, change seems wise here.
It seems time to shift the Theater from the City to the private, non-profit sector; such model works well for many other community-based theater groups.
In my opinion, the City should do what only the City is able to do; to wit, the City should provide fire and police service; I suggest the City is not the only choice when Theater operations are under consideration.
On a related note, when was the last audit of the Theater?; and what were the results? Further, are all City operations on a fixed audit schedule?
Posted by Sethro, a resident of another community, on May 6, 2008 at 8:33 pm
Please people, it doesn't take intent for a crime to be committed. Intent can be important in cases where no hard evidence (i.e. bank records, etc.) exist. It is not a neccesary element in criminal cases. If it were there would be no involuntary manslaughter.
Intentional or not, it appears that over $10,000 that did not belong to the parties involved was directed into their personal accounts. That amounts to possesion of stolen property if nothing else.
Criminal? Bet on it.
Actually, if it wasn't criminal to bet on it, I'd have a hundred on at least one conviction or guilty plea.
Posted by Steve, a resident of the Adobe-Meadows neighborhood, on May 6, 2008 at 9:02 pm
Intent is not required for involuntary manslaughter because other elements (recklessness or commission of a misdemeanor) provide a substitute for it. However, the intent to permanently deprive is an element of all theft crimes, including embezzlement. If you are going to make legal contentions, do get the law straight.
Also, last time I looked, parties were innocent until proven guilty - so your assertion "criminal - bet on it" also lacks merit.
Lastly, I'm stunned at how people rush to judgment without knowledge of the facts, in reliance upon a single news article that merely quotes one side - the cop's side.
In fact two of the most vocal council members who have continually voiced support of the staff, while claiming there is nothing to the charges have major conflicts of interest with regard to the staff. See above article.
Looks to me like some of the council may be as ethically challenged as the PACT staff
Posted by Perp walk, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on May 7, 2008 at 1:01 pm
Here is one part regarding conflict of interest:
" The theater's critics - there are a few, though they tend to stay quiet - whispered that Briggs and Litfin were so tight with local politicians that city bean-counters were afraid to hold them accountable. After all, state Sen. Joe Simitian, a former Palo Alto mayor and onetime Children's Theatre trouper, is executor of Litfin's estate. Current Mayor Larry Klein is handling the Litfin estate's probate. And City Councilman Jack Morton has done accounting work for the non-profit Friends of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre. In fact, it's hard to find anyone in town without some personal connection to the place."
Posted by Richard Placone, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, 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.
Posted by JA3+, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on May 7, 2008 at 2:02 pm
Additional quotes from Ms. Fisher's article:
"After all this uninformed speculation, some court documents released last week finally gave us a peek at what the police suspect: that Briggs and Lifkin were pocketing city dollars intended to benefit children. There are suggestions of vacations, shopping sprees, gifts - all paid for with city tax dollars. For years, apparently, no one even asked them to turn in receipts.
"We don't have all the facts yet, and Briggs insists she's innocent. We're a long way from knowing whether these folks were crooks, innocent targets of overzealous cops or just sloppy bookkeepers. But one thing is certain: The city has got some 'splainin' to do.
"If Briggs really wasn't balancing the theater's accounts, who was supposed to be minding the store at City Hall? I mean, I just had to turn in a receipt for $7.32 for coffee with a source.
"Heads need to roll, right?
"Which raises a problem. There may not be any heads to roll by the time this thing is over.
"City Manager Benest, Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison, administrative services chief Carl Yeats, auditor Sharon Erickson and recreation director Richard James - Briggs' boss - have all retired or resigned.
"So when the facts are all in and the public wants to blame someone for not looking after their tax dollars, there won't be anyone left to hold accountable."
Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community, on May 7, 2008 at 2:37 pm
Nice Mr Placone. I hope they read it.
One question,well two. Do you think they will ever look under the RUBBLE. To maybe see what kind of damage, they help cause or allowed to happen?
Do you think they care enough to want to fix any of the DAMAGE THEY MIGHT HAve CUASED or should have stopped much sooner before it got totally out of hand and hurt way too many people. This is not a one time event here... Seems like it is a daily activity?
Made look my way?????
Mr Palone you said most of what needs to be said... GOOD NIGHT.. Lots of people should read your post.
Posted by T, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on May 7, 2008 at 4:13 pm
Does anyone know in what year the CT was last audited? In this forum, it seems like a lot of people hold Frank Benest responsible for failing to have the CT audited. Yet I have also seen statements about 'screwy' accounting (Michael Litfin's words) having been in place for many years. I don't know how to interpret "many years." So my question is this: was the CT being audited regularly all along until Frank showed up? Or was there a lack of proper auditing previous to Frank, which seems to have continued under his watch?
Posted by narnia, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on May 7, 2008 at 6:58 pm
Innocent until proven guilty? That assertion is ONLY used during court proceeding. It has no bearing on public opinion. In any case, in California, a person accused of a crime can only be found guilty or not (there is no declaration of innocence).
People seem to be confused on this case. There is the possibility of a criminal indictment, an issue with misspent funds that's not necessarily criminal( we just don't know) but will require for the involved to make the city whole financially and also the procedures applicable to municipal employees.
Whereas we do not know what the elements of a possible criminal indictment are we do know that city funds were kept in private accounts, that the involved cannot account for expenditures and that they ran the CT in a debatable manner. That's enough.
The CT will survive (perhaps as a non-profit) and in my opinion for the better if the principals of this affair were to be relieved of their functions.
Posted by JA3+, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on May 8, 2008 at 2:35 pm
From Richard Placone's post:
"A complete audit should be taken of the CT ..."
From T's post:
"...was the CT being audited regularly all along until Frank showed up? Or was there a lack of proper auditing previous to Frank, which seems to have continued under his watch?"
Mr. Placone's idea is prudent; do another audit now; review the findings in a public forum; in the early 1990s, another local jurisdiction -- the Town of Woodside -- put in place a yearly audit of all Town operations; to date, it's worked quite well, I believe.
T's questions are 'spot-on'; was CT regularly audited?; if so, what were the findings?; if not, why?
To follow on T's questions, what operations in the City are audited on a regular basis?; or, better yet, what operations are *not* audited on a regular basis?
Posted by dave, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on May 9, 2008 at 10:34 am
Mr. Placone you have done the City a great service in pulling together the information about the CT "problem" and carefully presenting it to us. I hope everyone reads it, for it lays out the facts (as known) and draws reasonable recommendations and conclusions.
Thank you for taking the time to write this letter.