By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Beginning last summer, Samuell Farm Park--the city-run petting zoo and favorite field trip for local schoolkids sent to commune with nature--became a severe migraine for the Dallas Department of Park and Recreation. Piles of rotting trash revealed illegal dumping amid the wildlife. Buried beneath the land was even more garbage, an archaeological record of chronic nature rape 30 feet deep.
Even after the Dallas Observer reported on attempts to cover up animal abuse, pollution, and questionable accounting practices at the 340-acre farm ("Crying fowl," March 4), farm management and park department staff discounted much of the story, attributing it to an angry ex-employee and her posse of overzealous animal lovers. But the Observer has obtained a March 3 memo sent from City Auditor Bob Melton to park department director Paul Dyer, which confirms that problems at Samuell Farm run much deeper than the park board previously admitted.
The six-page document--copied to the mayor, the city manager, the city council, and the president of the park board--outlines a track record of waste, neglect, and criminal fraud. More revelations could follow as the investigation continues. This interim information, writes Melton, is simply to address issues that require "immediate attention."
The Samuell Farm memo is the first time the auditor's office has released an interim report regarding a city park under investigation. "This is not a conclusive report," says Dyer. "[The auditor] is still trying to validate some of it, and we're still trying to verify that information too."
The memo points out four major dumpsites on the property, along with several smaller ones. Found amid the wide expanse of trees, ponds, and wildflowers were lumber, plastic, engines, portable toilets, washing machines, fuel pump dispensers, fencing, 55-gallon drums, and "street spoils" such as concrete and petroleum-based asphalt. None of these belongs in North Mesquite Creek, where much of it was dumped.
Within the first two weeks of a cleanup attempt, the city removed 92 truckloads of material from the farm and sent it to the city's real landfill a few miles away in East Dallas. The auditor discovered other waste as well, including $9,300 worth of mold-covered, rotted hay. If ingested by the animals, writes Melton, citing the Samuell Farm staff manual, it could "cause abortion, colic, or death." Prior to 1991, when current farm manager Doug Melton (no relation to Bob Melton) took control, the farm grew its own hay and sold what its animals didn't consume for a small profit. But for most of this decade, the farm has elected instead to purchase it from a contractor for $155 per round bale.
"The Farm is not properly maintained," the report continues. A windmill, the farm's historic landmark, "deteriorated to a degree that it had to be removed by order of the United States Department of Agriculture because it had become a hazard to livestock."
Located outside Dallas city limits on a rural nook of city land wedged between Mesquite and Sunnyvale, Samuell Farm has never faced enforcement of building codes and city ordinances. "The Farm has allowed building projects to proceed with no plans, budgets, or city building inspections," says the memo.
One of the more beleaguered structures has been a maintenance barn, which the farm began building after failing its first-ever USDA inspection in December. In January, a leaky pipe that went unrepaired for three days--farm staff said it couldn't find the shut-off valve--severely damaged the foundation. According to the auditor, it will cost nearly $18,000 to repair. Completion of the maintenance barn has been put on hold.
Perhaps even more problematic is what the city found when it dug through Samuell Farm's books--what there is of them. The memo cited an absence of control ledgers, required by park department policy, to track incoming materials, equipment, feed, and cash. It also questioned the use of the farm's 800 number. Auditor Bob Melton found at least $400 worth of personal calls received on this publicly funded line. This problem was actually caught in October, and the city demanded reimbursement for the calls. Although farm manager Doug Melton partly repaid the city by sending a check for $59.08, the memo says, "From review of the January 1999 phone records, it appears that the 800 number is still being used for personal matters."
That's small change, however, compared to the questionable earnings of former farm employee Billy Pon, who allegedly defrauded $22,500 from the city. Pon, a friend of Doug Melton's, began working on the farm staff in 1995. His duties required him to work at the "Haunted Barn," a kid-friendly special event held each Halloween. But that didn't stop him and his company, the Skeleton Crew, from receiving several contracts to organize the event.
"He was double-dipping all right," says Jim Stewart, former president of the Samuell Farm advisory council. In 1993 and 1994, this group of volunteers did most of the work for the Haunted Barn. That second year, they raised $17,000 from the event. A couple of months later, when Stewart began asking what had happened to the money, he received a letter from farm manager Melton saying the city had disbanded the volunteer group. The park department, however, claims the group disbanded itself. Regardless, Samuell Farm is now the only city park without a citizen's advisory council. And dismissing the volunteers enabled Pon and his company to take over the event, which, beginning in 1995, was costing the city more to run than ever before.
Pon, who now lives in Odessa, could not be reached for comment. Doug Melton did not return phone calls from the Observer. Bob Melton has since turned over this information to the Dallas Police Department's Public Integrity Division, which is investigating the matter.
This case is not the first time Samuell Farm has caught the DPD's attention. Late last year, police arrested John King, currently the assistant farm manager, on charges of tampering with a government document. For years, Samuell Farm has been a court-approved location for petty criminals seeking to work off community-service hours. And for years, farm staff has had a reputation of signing off on community-service hours without them being performed in exchange for goods, services, and possibly even cash. King was accused of trading hours for computer equipment, and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office says his case will go to trial later this year.
Park department director Dyer had previously denied these allegations. "According to the Dallas Police Department," he said, "there was no reason to pursue any charges. The computer equipment was for the farm, so there was no intent to defraud the city." In the past, Dyer has been a strong defender of farm management, but in light of the auditor's recent report, even he is being forced to re-evaluate his position.
"Anytime there are deficiencies in the system, it's always disturbing," Dyer says. "There are some legitimate concerns in there."
The city auditor's memo on Samuell Farm follows an audit released earlier this month on Tenison Park--a report that has found gross inadequacies in accounting procedures that are employed there as well. Both these properties, along with Samuell Grand Park and several others, fall within the purview of the Samuell Trust, which was set up when the land was willed to the city by the late Dr. W.W. Samuell. A fund was also established to provide for the parks' upkeep with a strict provision stating that money generated on these properties could be used only for parks donated by Dr. Samuell.
Since 1981, however, the park department has funneled these revenues into the city's general fund. At least one park board member finds this troubling. "I feel like Dr. Samuell didn't intend for his money to go to the general fund," says Rob Parks, who represents the White Rock Lake area. "He intended for it to go directly to his parks to help offset the expenses, and that's not happening."
The city auditor may not be delving into whether the park department is properly administering the Samuell Trust, but his inquiry is far from over. "We still are actively doing work at Samuell Farm," says Bob Melton, who will release his final report in May. "It's our job to look into these situations fully. I can't really comment on anything else now until we get to the end of our investigation.