About 30 smiling, cheering supporters greeted Pat Briggs as she entered the Palo Alto Children's Theatre lobby Monday afternoon.
Leaning only lightly on her cane and carrying a bouquet of roses, Briggs returned the smiles.
"It's good to see all of you. It's wonderful to be back," the 72-year-old longtime theater director said at a bittersweet moment marking both her return to the theater as director Friday and her official retirement after 47 years.
"We love you Pat and we're ecstatic to welcome you back home," said Ralph King, spokesman for the nonprofit Friends of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre.
Shortly after the cake and punch reception, Briggs sat down with the Weekly for the first time since the abrupt Jan. 24 theater closure, when she and colleagues Michael Litfin, Alison Williams and Richard Curtis were placed on paid administrative leave and news of an already 5-month-old embezzlement investigation began to leak out.
Now officially retired and working as a paid consultant, as "advising artistic director," Briggs said she is glad to be through with the bizarre, "hurtful" investigation. The period was exacerbated by the painful loss of Litfin, her longtime friend, who died Feb. 1, one week after the theater closure. He had been undergoing treatment for cancer.
Briggs said she is not bitter and wants only good things for the theater, and for the city.
The police investigation was triggered by a June 2007 theater burglary, when police officers discovered thousands of dollars of traveler's checks had been stored at the theater. Police weren't persuaded by the theater employees' explanations of the checks, which varied.
Briggs, the theater's beloved and honored director since 1961, was accused of masterminding an embezzlement plot, charges that infuriated scores of theater supporters who know and trust Briggs.
Despite months of work, the criminal investigation fizzled when the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office decided the case was too complex and flawed to prosecute in court or take to a jury. But a city administration-led investigation found that Briggs had broken numerous city policies and recommended her termination.
Although some supporters urged her to continue fighting her termination, Briggs said Monday she knew it was time to end the debacle.
"I'd had it. I think the theater was being hurt," Briggs said, referring to her decision to sign a July 21 settlement agreement with the city.
"My feeling is that everybody got tired of it going on and on."
She wasn't eager to pay the city $15,000, part of the settlement agreement that was intended to cover the 120-plus times the city says she submitted multiple receipts for compensation.
"I don't know how that happened," Briggs said, adding that it may have happened a few times, not 100 or more. She said sometimes the theater staff was asked to resubmit requests because the original had been misplaced.
"None of that was intentional," she said of the multiple submissions.
By agreeing to the settlement, she realizes some observers will assume she admitted guilt, which is not true, she said.
Overall, Briggs said she doesn't believe she or her colleagues were treated fairly. She expressed particular anger about being judged publicly "guilty until proven innocent" by the immediate suspensions, as well as about how the case was handled by police overall.
Rather than a secretive, criminal investigation, the city should have requested an auditor to review the theater's books and budgets, she said.
She'd welcome a full audit today, she said in the interview.
"We had nothing to hide," Briggs said.
Because police confiscated all records — and have not yet returned them — the accused theater employees had no access to their computers, files and other material to try to defend themselves against the police allegations, she said.
They were treated "guilty until proven innocent," which is not how she and other educators teach the justice system to children, Briggs said.
Their privacy was trampled, and their sterling reputations tarnished, she said.
Litfin was especially angry at the charges but died before he could speak out publicly, other than a background conversation with the Weekly on Jan. 25, the day after the suspensions.
Williams has since returned to her job at the theater. Curtis has been fired for accessing his computer while on leave, reportedly seeking to print out records. With the help of the Service Employees International Union local, he is fighting his termination — and there are reports of settlement talks in his case.
Briggs disagrees with charges that she and the other theater employees were sloppy bookkeepers or that they had melded their personal and their professional lives — and wallets.
"We were very careful with city money," Briggs said. Personal and city money weren't mixed, she said.
"We trusted each other; we knew where we were coming from."
Briggs provided a new explanation for the presence of thousands of dollars of traveler's checks found in the theater and her home.
The checks were purchased with money from theater participants' parents — routed through the city — for trips to southern California and Atlanta, Briggs said.
The traveler's checks accumulated because sometime in the 1980s someone at City Hall told her they did not want to return small amounts of money to parents because of the cost. So, Briggs and Litfin held on to the checks, feeling they belonged to a particular group of parents and not wanting to spend the money on anything else yet not knowing what to do with them, Briggs told the Weekly.
According to the police, Briggs and Litfin originally said the traveler's checks were their own.
On Monday, Briggs also said she reported the theft of the traveler's checks the first time she notified police after the June 2007 burglary. The Palo Alto Police Department has said she did not mention the traveler's checks until two people were arrested a week later in San Carlos trying to spend the checks.
Briggs admitted she made mistakes, including failing to keep track of the numbers and amounts of the traveler's checks in multiple places.
Briggs said she went into the episode fully trusting the police.
She said she did not realize she was a suspect even when she was interviewed for five hours Jan. 24, even though the embezzlement investigation had been underway for six months already.
"It was just all very, very odd," Briggs said. "I should have figured out something was amiss."
Theater employees were puzzled that police showed so little interest in the burglary, she said. The total amount of equipment stolen, including cameras and other items owned by staff members, eventually reached $32,500, including several expensive multi-media projectors valued at $17,000 but not immediately known to be missing because their boxes had been neatly stowed where they belonged.
But even the initial reports showed major losses, Briggs said — causing theater staff members to continually wonder why the police investigators seemed to be virtually ignoring it, and not knowing the investigation had shifted focus to the staff.
As for her retirement, Briggs told the Weekly she had expected to retire this year anyway, a change that might have been delayed due to the illness and death of Litfin. She said prior to Litfin's illness and the investigation, City Manager Frank Benest had a succession plan for the theater that would have named Litfin director.
She said she believes her relationship with Benest was damaged by her strong advocacy of creating a union-type association for middle managers in the city, who had no organized representation. She was among managers who actively supported an organizing effort spearheaded by her former boss, Leon Kaplan, then director of arts and culture for the city. The effort ultimately fell short of winning majority support of the managers.
Now, with an office across the courtyard from the Children's Theatre, Briggs is working with Arts and Sciences Manager Linda Craighead to select a replacement for Litfin out of the 91 applicants for the assistant-director job.
She said there are some highly qualified candidates.
Naming of a new director will follow selection of the assistant director under present plans.
Briggs said she does not feel her final assignment is a token position for the sake of the settlement agreement.
She said she is going to work positively to help guide the transition of the theater to new management, closing with honor her 47-year-long career as director.