Missing funds prompts audit of BR community center

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- City-parish officials are auditing the books of the Dr. Leo S. Butler Community Center, shown here, after the center's director filed a police report concerning missing funds that may have been taken by a former employee.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- City-parish officials are auditing the books of the Dr. Leo S. Butler Community Center, shown here, after the center's director filed a police report concerning missing funds that may have been taken by a former employee.

East Baton Rouge Parish officials are investigating whether a former employee stole money from the Dr. Leo S. Butler Community Center after the center’s director filed a police report about missing funds.

The investigation is in its early stages and is being handled by the city-parish Finance Department’s audit division, Finance Director Marsha Hanlon said.

“We have been requested to review a situation out there,” she said.

Hanlon said the request came from Council Administrator Brian Mayers.

The investigation is ongoing and no report has been generated yet, she said.

A police report from April 9 lists the center’s director,
Sherman G. Ruth, as the person reporting the suspected theft.

The theft occurred sometime between March 20 and April
9, according to the police report.

The report, large sections of which were blacked out, says the center’s staff had received several calls from someone who had rented the facility and not been refunded a $75 rental deposit.

“It was discovered that the money was never deposited,” the report says.

Ruth said that the Butler Center operates with a staff of four and several volunteers.

Ruth was appointed to the director’s job in December, shortly after Councilwoman Tara Wicker fired former Director Calvin Beal.

Wicker said Monday that the initial police report led to further concerns and that it “appears to be the tip of the iceberg.”

The employee — who is no longer employed at the center and whose name was blacked out in the police report — occupied an administrative position at the center, Wicker said.

Wicker would not specify the position the employee held.

Wicker said that once she learned of the missing money, she and Ruth began reviewing the center’s policies and procedures for handling the center’s funds.

“He (Ruth) has made recommendations to myself and to Finance in regards to what needs to be changed,” Wicker said. “In many instances, there just weren’t procedures in place.”

The parish’s five community centers were a flash point in a rift between the Metro Council and Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration in late 2011, when the council voted to shift control over the centers from the administration to the individual council members in whose districts they lie.

The council members assumed control of the centers at the start of 2012.

Last month, two council members — neither of whom has a community center in his district — sponsored a measure to put the centers back under the mayor’s control. The investigation at Butler Center is a “contributing factor” to the proposal, said John Delgado, who is sponsoring the item along with Chandler Loupe.

“We need to have tighter controls on these community centers,” Delgado said. “There are a lot of concerns about how the money is being spent and who is watching the money.”

The record keeping at many of the centers was “shoddy” and “haphazard,” Delgado said.

“They are like $250,000 petty cash boxes just sitting there,” he said.

The Leo S. Butler Community Center has a 2013 budget of $249,050. Fees generated at the center through rentals are put into a fund that the center can request from the city, Wicker said.

Wicker, who strongly opposes Delgado and Loupe’s proposal, said moving the centers back under the mayor’s control would not help with the record keeping.

“If it was a haphazard record keeping, it would have been under the mayor’s administration,” she said, adding that she inherited procedures already in place. “One of the reasons I was fighting so hard to make sure it remains with the council members is that we are there. We are seeing it.”

The council voted April 24 to defer action for 60 days on the proposal to shift control of the community centers back to the Mayor’s Office.