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Audit Faults Atlanta Scout Rolls

An independent review finds that officials vastly inflated membership in a program for poor inner-city youths.

June 06, 2005|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Terrence Zachary, a Scoutmaster from a west Atlanta housing project, used to show his pride in his uniform by wearing it to the warehouse where he loads trucks.

Last month, though, he folded up his shirt and put it in his dresser. He now wears a baggy white T-shirt and jeans to Boy Scout meetings.

"The shirt has great meaning," said Zachary, 21, a computer science student. "I believe in being trustworthy, loyal and helpful. But officials manipulated that meaning for their own personal gain."

Last week, an audit found that Boy Scout officials in Atlanta had vastly inflated participation in Operation First Class for disadvantaged inner-city youths.

In brochures, the program claimed to have more than 15,000 members, but the audit found 5,361 enrolled members, of whom 3,485 were active.

Some observers are even challenging those numbers as too high, saying as few as 500 are in the program.

In an open letter Sunday to the Atlanta Area Council of the Boy Scouts, Joseph Beasley of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition -- who triggered the initial investigation in another open letter to the board -- demanded a more thorough investigation.

"These figures are ridiculous," wrote Beasley, Rainbow/PUSH's southeast regional director. "In no way can this report be said to be independent."

The audit found that Scouting officials had altered the birth years of Scouts who had outgrown the program, and that officials had reregistered inactive troops. In some cases, auditors found no evidence that listed units had existed.

Auditors found that Scouting staffers inflated membership numbers to meet recruiting goals, not to increase fundraising, said Edgar Sims, a lawyer with the Atlanta law firm that conducted the eight-month audit, McKenna Long and Aldridge.

"There was a total failure to provide adequate leadership and supervision," Sims said.

Hours after the audit's release Tuesday, David Larkin resigned as executive director of the Atlanta Area Council of the Boy Scouts. Larkin, who earned more than $250,000 a year, said in a written statement that he was "deeply disappointed both personally and professionally."

For the members of Troop 685, Larkin's resignation was little comfort.

"The way they used us was not right," Zachary said.

For about 20 years, the troop has worked with boys from the Bankhead Courts housing project in an Atlanta neighborhood whose ZIP Code -- 30318 -- is renowned for producing the most prison inmates in Georgia. The troop offers weekly meetings, camping and hiking trips, and mentoring from local businesses.

When Operation First Class was established in 1991, Troop 685 hoped Scouting would thrive in nearby housing projects.

Leaders began to suspect the Atlanta Area Council of inflating the number of inner-city Boy Scouts in 2002, when Isley Agnew, a 15-year-old Scout, moved from Bankhead Courts to another housing project and could not find the listed troop.

"It was shocking at the time," Agnew said. "I wanted to be a Scout; they said there was a troop, but I couldn't find anything."

When Bob Kent, director of the Bankhead Boys Assn. and committee chairman of Troop 685, approached Atlanta's Boy Scout headquarters to suggest setting up a troop, he was told the project already had one.

"It was the strangest thing," Kent said. "They just stuck to the position that there was already a troop. It was all phony, and we knew it was all phony."

Disillusioned, Troop 685 stopped recruiting.

"We didn't see any future," Kent said. "We were seeking to get the support we needed to expand, but the Scouting organization didn't seem interested."

Allegations of inflated membership rolls have been leveled at various Boy Scout groups across the country.

In Alabama, the FBI is investigating rumors that Birmingham's council officials fabricated members.

In the 1990s, councils in Los Angeles, Vicksburg, Miss., and Jacksonville, Fla., were embroiled in similar membership controversies.

In Texas, an inquiry five years ago by U.S. Postal Service investigators prompted Dallas' Boy Scout council to revise enrollment downward.

Some Atlanta volunteers said the Boy Scouts of America National Council pressured district leaders to increase enrollment.

National Council spokesman Gregg Shields said membership inflation was "isolated to a few" of the 310 councils across the country.

"I wouldn't characterize this as a national problem," he said.

The Scouts' national office said it planned to introduce new checks on membership inflation, including five audit teams and a signed document to be filed by volunteers as well as staffers.

The Atlanta audit found no fraudulent use of funds for the inner-city Scouting program. The Atlanta council's executive board has said it plans to retrain staffers and set up a task force of key volunteers and leaders to find ways to develop the inner-city Scouting program.

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