Charges of Malpractice Blossom at Discovery Gardens, and Records Get Composted
To shred or not to shred? Is sudden large-scale document shredding in a semi-public entity ever a good thing?
On the morning of May 21, Randy Johnson, the recently fired director of horticulture at the Texas Discovery Gardens, goes to a sit-down visit at City Hall with Paul Dyer, director of the city's Park and Recreation Department, and Joan Walne, chair of the park board.
Johnson presents these august city officials with a laundry list of instances in which he says money has been mishandled at the Discovery Gardens. He tells them that as soon as he leaves his meeting with them he's headed down to the city attorney's office to file a raft of Public Information Act demands for public documents.
Johnson told me last week: "They said, 'Well, hold off on that, Randy, because if you do that they'll just start shredding documents [at the Discovery Gardens].'"
Two days later, I learn that several employees have witnessed a wholesale document-shredding operation going on in the offices of The Texas Discovery Gardens.
I try to reach Dyer and Walne. I hear nothing back. I do talk to the acting director of the Discovery Gardens who confirms they have been shredding documents.
Oh. I ask what kind. She says financial documents. Oh. I ask if that isn't bad. She says no. None of the shredded documents had anything to do with Johnson or Jane Bryant, the former Texas Discovery Gardens executive director also recently fired after complaining to several board members about financial malpractice by board members.
Let's run through it again quickly. Executive director reports bad financial practices to board — board members running operations of the institution themselves from home, writing checks and so on. Board fires her. One month later, best-known and most popular employee with great track record for raising money, also fired, no reason given.
Fired employee reports bad financial practices to Dallas City Hall. They tell him to keep mum so nobody will shred documents. Two days later, major document-shredding party.
Is that reassuring?
You're still wondering: What the hell is the Texas Discovery Gardens? Sorry. Should have said that sooner. It's one of those quirky old institutions at Fair Park with a mission that is now somewhat elusive. Chartered in 1941, it is descended from the Hall of Horticulture at the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition.
It used to be a semi-private tea-party playhouse for old-fashioned ladies garden clubs around the city, and it still has a whiff of that. Many of the directors now operate under the aegis of the Texas Master Gardeners program associated with Texas A&M University, a gardening club for people who still use chemicals.
In recent years, however, the Discovery Gardens has taken on new life through two of its most popular programs. One is the Butterfly House, a glass, multistory wing housing an indoor rain forest that's home to exotic butterfly species. The other is the horticulture department that was run by Johnson. Under Johnson's hand, the Discovery Gardens, the first public garden in Texas certified 100 percent organic by the Texas Organic Research Center, has flourished.
The Discovery Gardens sits on 7.5 acres of city land, in a city-owned building where the city pays for all utilities and maintenance, in addition to providing an annual cash subsidy of $100,000, straight from city taxpayers. Why don't you have a clubhouse like that?
Johnson's programs, in addition to being a major source of revenue, were helping move the gardens out from the aura of fancy hats and hired gardeners with name-badge work shirts and into the burgeoning arena of organics and native plants attractive to a younger demographic. He joined the staff in 2007.
Bryant, a business teacher and entrepreneur, joined as executive director last year with a promise to double sales, grants, membership and attendance. She gave me copies of spreadsheets to show that she had done all of those things within a few months of arrival.
But she found problems. She also provided me with correspondence in which she argued with two board members about their effectively running departments of the institution as if the board members were management. Some of that activity involved purchasing and other financial operations. You know — moolah.
I discussed some of this several weeks ago with Janet K. Smith, who was chairperson of the board of directors at the time. She has since resigned, and so I re-discussed it last week with Michael Bosco, the new chairman. Both of them said more or less the same thing: Give us a break, we're a small volunteer entity. You don't turn people down if they're willing to help for free.
Smith said of one of the directors running a department, "He has given hundreds and thousands of hours to the Discovery Gardens in a wonderful way." She said he got involved in helping run things when he was just a member, before he ever went on the board. "The fact that he's a board member now is not even connected."
Mmm, I don't know. Things get awfully connected when board members start writing checks. I am not naming the board member here, because there is no allegation whatsoever of anybody taking money or profiting personally. It does sound like the person was trying to help. I'm not sure how that's worth running anybody's name through the mud.
But I also get why it made Bryant nervous as the hired manager not to have control over her own finances. She provided me with correspondence in which the board member in question tried to explain to her that the checks he wrote sometimes had to be back-dated and post-dated to make the monthly report balances come out right. Phew. That might give me the willies too. Bryant was basically telling the guy to come drop off the check book and find another volunteer activity.
She also got into it with another board member who was acting as a sort of self-appointed chief financial officer instead of chair of a board committee.
Look, I hear this kind of stuff all the time about nonprofits. I have served on a couple of those boards myself, and I understand how it happens. The entity is sort of muddling along anyway, trying to get things done and not have to pay a bunch of professional fees all the time, and sometimes the muddling gets a little too muddled.
We're not talking about organized crime. We're usually not talking about organized much of anything. I was always really glad when somebody on a board I served on had actual business experience so it wasn't all management by journalism, a toxic brew if there ever was one.
The situation at the Discovery Gardens sounds like too much garden club, not enough business. But here's where things take a darker turn:
Let's say you report the irregularities to City Hall, and they tell you, "Oh, don't bother turning in any demands for public documents, because we wouldn't want them to start shredding documents over there." Two days later a reporter gets tipped that they're practically stuffing file cabinets into a tree chipper.
Up to that point, everybody was protected by the harmless dithering defense. Oh, gosh, did we do that? (Slow forehead slap). We didn't even know. But shredding is not dithering. There is nothing naive about shredding, even though I believe I heard something like that argument when I called about it.
I called Sarah Gardner, the interim director. She confirmed that there had been a big shredding party on the day in question, but she said, "We were doing that because we needed the space."
I went through the whole timeline with her about Randy Johnson going to see Paul Dyer and Joan Walne and their telling him not to do anything that might cause shredding.
"And then you suddenly needed the space?" I asked.
"I was unaware of the meeting," she said. "This is the first I have heard of that. We got a new intern, and we have a new director coming in, and we've been moving office spaces around, so those are just old financial records."
Old financial records. Not exactly what you want to hear. Would rather have heard they were shredding old garden party invitations.
"Those are 10-year-old documents," she said. "Those are financial documents. After 10 years you shred the old documents. That has nothing to do with this."
I said, "So there's nothing missing from the last 10 years?"
That's great. That's really great. It's such a relief, because I have a very strong belief, based on information provided to me, that a lot of the information that would be crucial to the allegations made by Bryant and Johnson still exists on other copies held in other venues.
So of course, if the allegations were taken seriously and someone were to look into them and the pertinent records were found to be not where they should be in the files, then we might wind up with news footage of people holding their raincoats up over their faces while being herded into the federal paddy wagon.
That would be a cruel, cruel fate indeed for people only trying to keep their garden club afloat. That's why, generally speaking, most garden clubs don't even really need to own document-shredding machines.
Financial records take up much less room than you might think. Just get rid of one large potted plant, and you have room to keep those old financial records another 20 years. That accomplishes two things: 1) You still have them if you need them, and 2) Your own employees, who know all about the meeting two days before with Dyer even though you strangely don't, don't have to walk by the glass doors where you're spending the entire day until nine o'clock at night stuffing bales of paper into shredders, and they don't have to get all panicky and have a big morale problem because they see you doing something that looks really sketchy to them.
Ah, the advantages of just not shredding. They are multiple.
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