By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Since his 1997 election the CRA has been Teele's deal. As chairman he controls the agenda, which is drafted by CRA staff. His experience in federal and county government made him the logical commissioner to take the lead. For a long time, commissioners Winton and Sanchez allowed him to do so.
But for a long time they were also bothered that they often received copies of the agenda just a day before the meeting, which left them insufficient time to study complex items requiring them to vote on large expenditures of public money. "We probably could [address CRA agenda control] if we wanted to," Winton, who is the CRA board vice chairman, told New Times in early June. "But it's about which battles you want to pick and how you want to pick 'em. Which ones are the important ones. And I don't have an answer to that yet."
At the June 27 meeting, however, Winton did pick one. Sanchez and Commissioner Angel Gonzalez joined in. They suddenly had more than tardy agenda books to worry about -- there were alarm bells about bookkeeping problems at the CRA. They were just now receiving the results of the very tardy Fiscal Year 2000 audit from the city's independent auditor, KPMG. The CRA has "inadequate record-keeping," stated a KPMG letter dated October 25, 2001. The agency's financial reporting system "is not adequate to provide management with complete, accurate, and timely information needed to prepare the financial statements in accordance with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America," KPMG added. "Certain legal documents and other long-term agreements, including loan agreements, bond indenture agreements, and contracts, were not readily available."
Then KPMG accountant Ken Leon took the podium and told commissioners that CRA's acting executive director Annette Lewis had received that letter back in March. Commissioner Winton was miffed. "Okay, Commissioner Teele," Winton began. "Just so you know, I asked Miss Lewis point blank ... just in the past two or three weeks, and she did not tell me that the [KPMG] letter was in her office." When Lewis took the podium she admitted she had received a draft of the letter in December but wanted to respond to it in writing before sharing it with commissioners. "Well, that's what I should have heard," an exasperated Winton scolded. "I don't want to be mad at anybody. I just want to know the facts, the truth, so that when we get it I can deal with something."
To make matters worse, Leon told commissioners KPMG hadn't been able to finish the Fiscal Year 2001 audit of the agency. "The bottom line was the [CRA] books really never got closed," he informed, chagrined. Moreover, he had sent two letters to then-CRA executive director Deepak Parekh offering to help close the books. "But because of budget constraints, at least this is what we were told, they didn't hire us to help them close the books," Leon revealed. (Parekh quit the CRA a month after Lewis arrived.)
Another problem: a troubling turnover rate of chief financial officers. Three of them from 1999 to 2001. None, Leon had learned, had significant experience with CRA or city operations. And Lewis, who was hired in July 2001 to be the CFO, had spent almost a year trying to do that job and that of executive director. Leon said that situation could not stand. "Your executive director should be functioning as an executive director, not as a bookkeeper," he instructed. "She cannot serve in dual roles. It does not work. There is not enough time in a day for her to do that."
And the situation right now at the agency with millions of city and county tax dollars at its disposal? "The CRA doesn't have the accounting staff necessary to maintain the books and records, and to prepare the financial statements," Leon lamented.
Ironically it was Teele who suggested the agency was starting to look like the bad apples of corporate America. "At this point in time where we all are with Enron, with Worldspan [sic], with MCI. You know, this is the ugly side of being the accountant."
"And we don't want the next headline to be CRA," Winton interjected.
But it was too late. Something seemed to have gone dreadfully wrong.
Teele, whose second-floor riverview offices in the east wing of the Ramada Dupont Plaza Hotel are adjacent to Lewis's, was faced with having to explain how a year could pass without either of them realizing the gravity of the situation. Having Lewis perform both jobs was in line with his strategy of keeping expenditures for staff salaries down.
But now he realized he had been "penny-wise and pound-foolish." And offered this novel idea: "I believe that the CRA must not continue to try to save money, but we must go out and find an executive director who can run the operations and allow Miss Lewis to continue to function in the role for which she was hired."
He had thought an executive director-deputy director of finance position could work, he added, because the CRA has been "heavy" on the planning side and on the design side. "Remember," he told his fellow commissioners, "between '98, '99, and 2000 the CRA has primarily been engaged in consulting, studies, developing a master plan, developing the framework for what it is that we're trying to begin to launch." He conceded, however, that he may have made some "bad judgments."