Remember when all that money went missing from the Imperial Theatre? We do, even if many around town would rather we forget.By: Eric Johnson
The Imperial’s missing money.
It’s one of Augusta’s greatest recent mysteries, one so rooted in our daily vernacular that it has become tough to sort fact from fiction, the real information from the anecdotal.
Which seems to be suiting those involved just fine since, five years later, much of the outrage has faded away.
No harm, no foul.
Only there was harm. Money that was supposed to support and buttress the Imperial — somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000 — was there… and then it wasn’t. Until there’s an answer — a firm, factual answer that leads to some kind of public accounting — a cloud of suspicion is going to hang over the Imperial Theatre and everyone associated with it.
Theft. Embezzlement. Mismanagement. Lack of oversight.
Until the real story is told, everyone who played a part is tainted by it.
The Imperial Theatre has entertained Augusta audiences since its opening in 1918. During that time it has hosted everything from ballet to bluegrass, with plenty of other stuff in between. Some 20,000 area schoolchildren each year are exposed to the performing arts through the Augusta Players’ popular Storyland Theatre program, which moved to the Imperial eight years ago.
It’s a local treasure loved by just about everyone.
Over the years, the theater has frequently faced financial hardships, though former Executive Director Greg Goodwin, who ran the Imperial from 1999 to 2004, worked hard to turn the 853-seat theater’s fortunes around.
“When I first walked in there, the first phone call I got was from Georgia Power — they said they were going to turn off the lights because we owed $48,000,” Goodwin says. “I called a board member and they said, ‘Yeah, I think there was a balance on there,’ and I said ‘Do you realize it was $48,000?’ And they said they had no idea.”
Goodwin says they came up with a payment plan and he had the bill paid off in two years. He also worked hard to mend fences with the volunteers and the arts organizations, resurrected the campaign to replace the seats, got a new boiler, a ticketing program and, together with the Morris Museum’s Kevin Grogan, helped establish the popular Southern Soul and Song series.
“I left them with $60,000 in the bank from that series,” he says. “I left them sitting really pretty, and it’s just real discouraging to see it all, in the years following, run off the tracks.”
Following Goodwin as executive director was former board member and Goodwin’s administrative assistant, Lara Plocha.
Plocha and her husband, Matt, had moved to Augusta from Winter Haven, Florida, where she was involved with a similar theater, the historic Ritz Theater, and owned a gift store called Blue Magnolia.
In the midst of the Imperial’s financial upheaval, much of which was blamed on Plocha, she opened a Blue Magnolia gift shop on Broad Street. Given the timing, it raised quite a few eyebrows.
Opening an expensive store when significant funds are unaccounted for at your day job tends to do that.
Initially, however, she seemed like a good fit to take over operations at the theater. As Goodwin’s assistant, she had an understanding of the day to day operations, and as a former board member, she knew that landscape as well, something that can be helpful when it comes to getting things done.
“In Lara’s defense, she was a fantastic administrative assistant,” Goodwin says. “She was extremely efficient and organized, and she was very innovative. She took initiative, and I was very pleased with her when I was there.”
And while outwardly things after Goodwin’s 2004 departure seemed to be continuing in that same positive direction, internally, it quickly became clear that the theater was not running smoothly at all.
One of the first indications came approximately a year later, when Goodwin received a call from a credit card company saying that charges on the Imperial credit card, which had been issued in his name, had not been paid.
“When I was there, it was hardly used at all, so it was really interesting to see that there was a large balance on it and it wasn’t being paid,” Goodwin says. “When I left, she said she’d get it changed and get her name on it, but that never happened, and then she started charging stuff on it and not paying the bill and they started calling me.”
Needless to say, that was a phone call he wasn’t happy to answer.
“That’s why I called the board president at the time (Paul Brewer) and said, ‘Look — you need to take care of this now,’” he says. “I think at that point they were kind of blindsided. I think at that time that was the first they’d heard about anything.”
He says they resolved the issue, and though he doesn’t remember the amount that was owed or what it was for, he admits to being disappointed.
That may have been the first indication that things weren’t running smoothly, but it was no means the only early warning.
In October 2006, House Manager Barbara Owens was filling in at the box office when a city worker came to cut off the water.
“There was a school show going on,” Owens remembers. “It’s not a good thing to have a theater full of kids when they’re going to turn off the water.”
That wasn’t all. She learned that the week before, a co-worker had to dash off to pay Georgia Power, and another co-worker discovered that checks were bouncing to the firemen and sheriff’s deputies that were paid by the theater to work the shows.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, this worker recalls being stopped by a fireman at McDonald’s.
“A guy was up at the counter and came up to me and said, ‘Do you know my check bounced?’” she says.
Owens later spoke with at least three other police and firemen who had experienced the same thing. It had become so commonplace, she says, that they cashed the checks rather than deposit them.
It was here Owens says she really began to feel uneasy.
“Sixty dollar checks are bouncing,” she says. “I’m thinking — this isn’t good when $60 checks are bouncing.”
Interviewed specifically for this story, Plocha recalls a difficult time made even more difficult by programming choices that proved to be unsuitable for the local audience.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the things we brought in were awesome things, but you know Augusta — you go all out for something, and sometimes they just don’t show up,” she says. “We suffered quite a few losses and it seems like there was one point where we were all just scrambling to patch it together, and I think that’s where a lot of the misunderstandings and the thing about ‘where’s the money gone’ came from.”
Though she acknowledges the missing money became central to the collective understanding of the situation, she denies it was true.
“I don’t think there was any missing money that I’m aware of in the end,” she says.”
No missing money?
She pauses. “As far as I’m aware.”
About that same time as the bounced checks, Owens remembers getting paid from checks out of the box office account instead of the operating account. She asked Plocha why, and the answer, she says, didn’t ring true.
“I asked Lara what was happening, and she acted exasperated and said it was because First Union (now Wells Fargo) hadn’t sent them any checks,” Owens says. “We were at 729 Broad Street and they were on the corner of 7th and Broad — I’d have been walking down there to ask them, if it had been my responsibility.”
She remembers this lasting a month or more.
And these things weren’t happening in a vacuum, either. If the credit card represented the first alarm to the board that things were amiss — remember, Goodwin says he informed board president Paul Brewer about the issue — there were additional alarms as well.
“I told Paul Brewer and (incoming president) Ed Presnell,” she says. “They both knew bills weren’t being paid, checks were bouncing and First Union would not give us checks for the operating account. The board knew.”
If so, that goes against the public record of the event, a narrative that maintains the board was unaware of any problems until Dance Augusta came to it on March 16, 2007, with word that the theater owed the group $45,000. In fact, two days before that announcement, Plocha reported to the board that the theater had $100,000 in unencumbered funds.
“I don’t exactly recall that,” Plocha says of the $100,000.
She doesn’t remember reporting to the board that the struggling theater had $100,000 free of any claim or obligation?
“I don’t know how to answer that question,” she says, “because I don’t recall the specifics.”
Dance Augusta’s announcement blew the doors off the story, but before that there were plenty of additional irregularities occurring in the theater’s operation, including a new policy where those working concessions were not allowed to balance their drawers.
“They no longer put down how many 20s, 10s, fives and ones were in there,” Owens recalls. “She didn’t want anybody cashing anything out.”
Without an accurate count, of course, there is no verifiable record of money collected, leaving everyone a suspect if money ever came up missing, something that made those at the theater, including Owens, uncomfortable.
Owens, who occasionally had to transfer the cashbox money into the safe, began making sure one of the deputies or one of the firemen was present.
“We just left $200 in the drawer for the next show and put whatever was left in a bag,” Owens says. “We didn’t count it. We didn’t fool with it. We just put it in a black bag and put it in the safe, but I made them come and watch me put it in the safe.”
Then, somewhere after closing the doors on the evening of December 11, 2006, a pivotal event in the Imperial saga occurred — $900 was stolen from the theater’s safe. This wasn’t money that simply turned up missing, it was money that was actually physically taken from the theater. By someone caught on security video.
Security cameras from the Lamar Building caught the burglar entering the building from one of the side doors in the alley between the buildings.
Owens and her son, who occasionally worked concessions for concerts and might have recognized someone from those events, watched the video with Plocha.
“Whoever did it was wearing a hoodie and you could not see their face,” she says. “They were tall, slender and had on some kind of boots and jeans. And that hooded sweatshirt.”
Two others interviewed for this story who also viewed the tape describe a similar person — tall and slender.
“You see somebody go in and you see them come out just a few minutes later,” Owens says. “To get into the executive offices, they would have had to have had a key, because we did not leave those unlocked.”
According to the incident report, Plocha told the reporting deputy that the doors were locked when she left and unlocked when she returned.
The physical description of the intruder is one of the many frustrating details that make the lack of a definitive resolution so maddening, because while any number of people might be described as tall and thin, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the same description applies to Plocha as well.
On March 14, 2007, Plocha submitted that financial report showing $100,000 in unencumbered funds. Media stories at the time reported that the news prompted board members to consider putting the money into an interest bearing account.
That optimism, if true — and given what board members had been told about the financial instability, many are skeptical it was — changed abruptly two days later, when Dance Augusta called Brewer reporting that the Imperial owed the group approximately $45,000 for its Nutcracker performances.
Reports of more unpaid bills quickly surfaced in spite of the board’s insistence that it was unaware of any problems until Dance Augusta’s call. Most significant of these were the performers that were part of the HaHaPalooza comedy series.
In April, the Imperial distributed an announcement that comedian Henry Cho’s show was being canceled due to low-ticket sales, only to come back three days later rescinding the ‘low ticket sales’ part of the statement. Cho, part of the Good Humor Men Tour, told the Metro Spirit that the show hadn’t been canceled by the Imperial because of ticket sales, but that it had been canceled by the show’s producer because the two previous comedians on the tour hadn’t been paid.
“The first guys in February still haven’t been paid in full,” Cho said in the April 25, 2007, interview. “The second show in March hasn’t been paid at all.”
The producer of the shows, comedian Pat Hazell, said negotiations with the Imperial were difficult, and for his part, Cho was obviously disgusted.
“This has never happened in 20-plus years of doing stand up,” he said. “I cannot believe the Imperial chose to put out the release of ‘low ticket sales’ after the way they handled all of this.”
Plocha was placed on administrative leave in March and fired by a unanimous vote of the board on April 11 — after that year’s Masters. More specifically, it was after the April 3 Rock Fore! Dough concert. The Imperial held the one-day alcohol license for the popular event, and the profitable license was in her name.
According to Licensing Manager Larry Harris, Plocha’s termination wouldn’t necessarily have put the event in jeopardy, but given the popularity of Rock Fore! Dough, it’s easy to see how the board would have been worried it would.
Providing one-day, off-site alcohol for other organizations was a lucrative fundraising tool for the Imperial, and Plocha held 21 such licenses for the theater.
However, instead of making money, the theater was losing it, and at a time when the Plochas were spending a lot of it.
Though documents show the Blue Magnolia business license wasn’t applied for until November 2, 2006, the store’s arrival was common knowledge for months prior.
In October 2006, when the wheels were coming off the theater and the Plochas were busy stocking their new store, Plocha’s husband, Matt, who was unemployed at the time, made two separate $1,000 contributions in as many days to help the floundering First Friday event stay afloat.
The loft furniture store was well stocked with expensive merchandise not usually seen on Broad Street. It was also known in the business community for its sophisticated point of sale system, a very expensive check out and inventory device usually reserved for high-volume retailers.
The store closed in December 2009, two years after Plocha was fired and about a year after Matt Plocha started the downtown publication, Verge.
From the Dance Augusta announcement on, several inconsistencies occurred in the board president Paul Brewer’s statements regarding what transpired, not the least of which was the position, reiterated at a May 16 news conference, that the board was unaware of any problems until the Dance Augusta situation.
When Plocha was first put on administrative leave, Brewer dismissed rumors that the Imperial funds had run dry, telling the Augusta Chronicle that the theater was as solvent as it ever was. On April 11, Brewer was quoted as saying Plocha was fired for not meeting goals, and by May 16, he was putting the blame squarely on Plocha’s shoulders.
“The simple fact is that there were incorrect financial reports given intentionally to the board and that was the reason Lara was terminated,” Brewer said.
Not surprisingly, Plocha has a different interpretation.
“Some mistakes were made and there were some tense moments, but I don’t know that I set out to intentionally do anything incorrectly,” she says. “But how Paul feels about it is how Paul feels about it, and that’s fine. I have no hard feelings about what happened. It’s done. It’s over.”
Intentionally giving incorrect financial reports to a nonprofit’s board of directors is a pretty damning accusation, as were some of the other things board members told the media they had uncovered, including ghost deposit entries, concession sales that were down in spite of greater amounts being purchased and the repeated last minute sale of tickets, most of which were returned 20 minutes after the show started for a total of $9,000 in cash refunds.
In the wake of such incriminating information, the obvious question — the one no one seems willing to answer — is why was there no follow up when such a large amount of money was missing amid such dubious circumstances?
Inquiries to Lt. Jimmy Young of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office’s White Collar Crime division confirmed that only minor incidents and the missing $900 had been reported.
A request for information from the Imperial came up empty, too, though for a completely different reason. The request, sent to current Executive Director Charles Scavullo, was forwarded to board president Larry Baratto, who refused to answer any questions, including ones as seemingly innocuous as listing the current members of the board.
“The Imperial Theatre respectfully declines to respond to your inquiry regarding events that occurred more than five years ago,” the email reads. “The matter was addressed at that time, and the Imperial Theatre Board of Directors has nothing further to add.”
But if it had been adequately addressed at the time, would people still be asking questions?
The lack of answers from the board only breeds more difficult questions:
Do they have something to hide, do they fear more attention might uncover new embarrassments or are they simply unwilling to discuss an uncomfortable subject?
Whatever the reason, plenty of questions remain.
Former board member Michael Deas, a local music promoter, has some questions about the Imperial organ fund he’d like to ask.
Deas joined the board in July 2007, just months after Plocha was terminated, and he says that four separate movie fundraisers, including the 50th anniversary screening of the “Three Faces of Eve,” which had its world premiere at the Imperial in 1957, brought in a considerable amount of money earmarked for the organ restoration fund, which had already been established.
“There should be over $30,000 in that account,” Deas says. “It was restricted funds — that was the way the business plan was written and the way it was voted on by the board.”
But according to Deas, the board wanted to borrow money from the organ fund to pay bills.
“I’ve got to say I wasn’t really in favor of that, because the money was raised for a purpose, and sometimes when you borrow money, you don’t always pay it back,” he says. “When they decided to borrow money, I decided it was time for me to resign.”
Others question the application of the restoration fee attached to each ticket sold, since many involved with the theater say little has been done in terms of restoration.
The recent fundraising campaign to earn the $250,000 in matching funds to unlock $1 million in SPLOST money has identified a lot of needs that have been listed for a long time, including things like the fire curtain and improved handicapped accessibility. With first a dollar and then two dollars a ticket being assigned to restoration, people are wondering just what that money has been used for.
And then there is the most troubling question of them all: Is it merely a coincidence that these unsupervised Imperial funds became missing at the time Plocha opened Blue Magnolia?
In spite of all the controversy, Plocha has remained a public figure, moving from the Imperial to the head up the Downtown Augusta Alliance while also assuming the role of editor at her husband’s paper, Verge, which was briefly owned by Portico Publications, a previous owner of the Metro Spirit.
Verge was later purchased by Buzz on Biz’s Neil Gordon, and while Matt Plocha initially stayed on, the two parted ways late last year.
On the record, neither Scavullo or Baratto nor past board presidents Paul Brewer or Ed Presnell will say anything. In fact, they make it very clear that they have absolutely nothing to say. But certain individuals were more than candid during an initial Spirit inquiry conducted by a private investigator. There, they confirmed many of the incriminating allegations that build such a strong circumstantial case against Plocha. Included in these are the concession and ticket refunding irregularities, the fact that Plocha was supplying nearly all of the financial information to the board herself, the fact that after being put on administrative leave, Plocha was allowed access to her office computer to remove files involving the Blue Magnolia, the fact that board members felt steered by Plocha to purchase an expensive and ineffective sound system against the advice of the theater’s technical director and the fact that Plocha never provided a reasonable explanation for why the money was missing.
To quote one board member familiar with the finances, “Somebody needs to do a perp walk for this.”
Connect all the dots — the sudden derailment of a solvent institution soon after it was passed off to Plocha, the policy change that prevented workers from counting their money; the tall hooded figure walking off with $900; Brewer’s claims that Plocha intentionally gave incorrect financial reports; the last-minute ticket sales; the concession irregularities and everything else — and either those involved are sheltering a thief in order to protect their own reputations for having allowed such a loss under their oversight, or they’re allowing an innocent person to hang out to dry for the same selfish reason.
Until those on the board thoroughly explain what happened, fingers will continue to point to Lara Plocha, because as a former employee said, you’d be stupid not to think she did it. You Might Also Like: