The more that I read about the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, the police investigation of three of its administrators and the nonchalant way the city over the years reportedly issued more than $43,000 in advance funds to reimburse theater leaders for travel, the more I realize that no one's looking good in this near fiasco.
The police investigation has been going on for months (since June 2007) during which time the public has been mostly kept in the dark.
Sometime last fall two police detectives traveled to Texas to quiz former Arts/Culture Director Leon Kaplan, but they still kept mum about the investigation.
Suddenly on Jan. 24, four theater administrators — Director Pat Briggs, the late Assistant Director Michael Litfin, Costume Supervisor Alison Williams and Program Assistant Richard Curtis — were suspended. Two weeks ago the police revealed their embezzlement suspicions against all but Curtis when at the department's request the court unsealed affidavits for search warrants of homes and storage units.
No one has yet been formally charged, and Johnson said last week the department hasn't even "presented our case" to the district attorney's office — responding to reports that the case will likely not be criminally prosecuted. All suspended staff members have been kept on salary.
People in the community who know and love Pat Briggs describe all this as "a tragedy." Briggs through her attorneys has asserted her innocence of criminal activity Yet no one knows whom to believe.
Police Chief Lynne Johnson and others in the police department have not yet adequately explained the correlation, if any, of the burglary of the Children's Theater by a motley crew of 20-somethings last June — two young Hispanic men recruited by a trio of two men and a woman with punk-style hairdos who seemed to know about the insides of the theater.
Cadres of theater supporters have been appearing before the Palo Alto City Council asking for an explanation of what is happening, yet they were met with silence from council members. Ironically, one of the city's four top priorities this year is "civic engagement" and while people are pretty engaged in what is happening at the Children's Theatre, the council has been relatively mute, other than some harsh individual comments at other times.
And now City Manager Frank Benest acknowledges that "obviously there was a breakdown" when the city failed to enforce its policy of receipts for all travel.
"We had the procedures in place ... but in this particular case there was not the aggressive follow-up because the Children's Theatre was unique and well-loved," he said. But there had been no receipts for years and thousands of dollars were issued for travel. (At every office I have worked, I was required to hand in a receipt for every expense. No receipt, no reimbursement.)
The theater's books evidently have been sloppy for years. Wasn't the theater ever audited? Some residents claim these three are creative people and bookkeeping is not one of their talents, especially in an environment where the next play or event is demanding immediate attention. But I think if a person is in charge of a big budget, as Briggs was, a requirement of the job should be to keep the books in order, especially if they are being paid more than $100,000 a year. If that wasn't her strength, she (or someone within the city hierarchy) should have found someone who could keep the books in order.
Even the council doesn't look great. For weeks, residents have been asking questions during oral communications. Council members are barred under state law from responding directly to a speaker under oral communications except to refer the matter to staff, according to the city's procedures manual. . Council members in any case don't want to engage in a debate with a speaker. But debate is one thing, and acknowledging the problem is another. Mayor Larry Klein could have appeased many residents by simply saying, "Thank you. We are looking into that."
Furthermore Klein recently stated he doesn't think a crime is involved and council member Jack Morton described this as a "witch hunt," thus publicly pitting the council (or members of it) against the police.
Those who should get credit are the residents who, week after week, keep on demanding an explanation of why the three have been suspended. When they first started appearing before council, I wondered what all the fuss was about, since the police were legitimately investigating what Johnson said "involved thousands of dollars." But I soon changed my mind about the residents' questions, because not only did they keep on demanding answers but — for the first time in a long time in this community — "establishment" residents were questioning a police investigation. Plus the police department -- and the council -- remained silent on the issue.
Benest also ordered a completely separate administrative investigation, and so far nothing has been revealed about what, if anything, has been found by the lawyer and private investigator hired to do it. I do wonder how much city money is being spent on this investigation.
In the past the city has refused to release details about investigations of city staff (such as in the Utilities Department meltdown during most of 2005), claiming these were "personnel" issues. It took the Weekly winning a lawsuit for the public to learn what really happened.
I hope Benest won't offer that excuse again. The Children's Theatre has been in the headlines for months, the community is abuzz with conversations about it, and people are tired of waiting to find out what really happened in this case. To keep information closeted under the "personnel" banner does no one any good — particularly after individual reputations have already been thrashed beyond repair. The public has a right to know what and how its "public employees" are doing.
So no one's looking good — not the police with their overly long investigation and odd handling of information about it; not Briggs; not the sloppy bookkeeping; not Briggs' boss at City Hall; not Benest; not even the City Council.
There may not be a happy ending to this story — in fact I can't see how there could be. But knowing all the facts will be a step in the right direction.