A “damning” audit of Wolf Creek Amphitheater in Fulton County released Monday found more than two dozen violations of county policy. The problems include cash management issues, preferential treatment for some vendors and a ticket-printing practice that gave complimentary access to thousands more people than was allowed, overcrowding the facility.
“There’s no sugar-coating it,” Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said. “There were quite a few things that were unearthed.”
The county attorney’s office has launched an investigation and criminal charges are possible. Eaves said he expects a decision about the fate of the amphitheater’s three employees in the coming weeks.
The amphitheater, in south Fulton, had trouble booking shows and couldn’t sell tickets when it opened in 2011. A mix of R&B and jazz acts in recent years led Wolf Creek to become profitable in 2013, and now Eaves hopes to use it as an economic engine for the southern part of the county.
The audit exposed a slew of problems. In a written response to the audit, County Manager Dick Anderson said the county has already taken “immediate action” to put new controls in place.
Employees sometimes held money for as long as three months without depositing it, the audit said. The same employee was responsible for collecting, recording and depositing money, so there was no outside oversight when it came to what money was coming in. And a misappropriation of funds led to inaccurate reporting, where money that was collected for one reason was used as payment for another — such as box office collections being used as petty cash to reimburse employees for their own expenses.
Workers also circumvented the county’s purchasing requirements and state law by paying contracts in excess of limits that required a competitive bid. In one instance, a security company was paid more than $112,000 in 2015. The county only allows purchases that are less than $2,500 to forego the bidding process.
Additionally, Wolf Creek gave J.D. Entertainment exclusive access to partner with the county to host events, while J.D. Entertainment and another company with the same CEO hosted 74 percent of all events hosted at the amphitheater for a two-and-a-half-year period the audit examined. That kept other concert promoters from operating at the facility, and treated concert promotion like a “sole source service,” the audit said.
And while standard practice is to give complimentary tickets that amount to 1 percent of seats — 53, in Wolf Creek’s case — employees regularly issued more than 500 complimentary tickets per show. They added 10 extra VIP tables to the facility, but didn’t sell tickets through Ticket Alternative. It’s unclear whether the tickets were sold elsewhere or given away, but the complimentary tickets represent a potential loss of tens of thousands of dollars. Additionally, overfilling the amphitheater by adding that many tickets violates the fire code and creates a hazard.
Results of the audit show that the county did not have appropriate oversight of what was happening at the facility. The practices “could have resulted in the funds being lost or stolen,” the audit says, though it is not yet clear if any money is missing.
After the audit had begun but before it was made public, two of the amphitheater employees who would be held responsible for any issues warned they planned to file a whistleblower suit. Lisa Rushin and Sandy Ward-Poag were in the middle of a dispute with Commissioner Marvin Arrington about who had access to a skybox at Wolf Creek, and claimed they were being retaliated against. At that point, the county had already begun to look into improprieties at the amphitheater. The suit was filed last month.
Lisa West, an attorney for Rushin and Ward-Poag, said her clients “have done nothing wrong.” A spokeswoman for Arrington said he did not want to comment while the investigation was ongoing.
Eaves described the actions in the report as “egregious.” West said she thought the audit was a way to discredit her clients, whom she said followed all laws and Fulton County regulations.
Before the audit was released, the county planned to relinquish management of the facility. Three companies submitted proposals to take over Wolf Creek, and they are presenting their ideas Tuesday. The county is expected to recommend a new manager the first week of December.
“The fundamental issue is the government doesn’t belong in the entertainment business,” Anderson said. “The focus needs to be on the facility side, not the entertainment side.”
The county will continue to investigate whether any money is missing, Anderson said. Until that is determined, he said, the biggest blow from the Wolf Creek report is to the county’s reputation.
“It was poorly managed against any rational standard,” Anderson said. “There’s no good news out of this other than a new broom sweeps clean.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.