Records detail internal turmoil, AWOL leadership as PDA faced bankruptcy
It wasn’t just a financial crisis that threatened the existence of the Fort Worden Public Development Authority as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the fort last year.
Public records recently released by the authority detail an agency in turmoil, gripped by infighting and a lack of leadership as the PDA struggled for months to keep its financial head above water during the early months of the coronavirus crisis.
The trouble stretched to the top.
The board of the Fort Worden Public Development Authority launched an investigation into former executive director Dave Robison last year after an allegation of embezzlement in the agency and a whistleblower said he ordered paperwork shredded from the personnel file for Diane Moody, the fort’s former chief financial officer.
The PDA also wanted Robison investigated for the allegation he pressured staff to let Moody back into her office to “clean up files” months after she abruptly resigned from her post last June, according to documents obtained by The Leader under a public records request.
Records also show Robison was suspended from having any authority to sign “contracts, leases, licenses, operational and constructional expenses, and personnel actions” in light of “the ongoing criminal investigation and prospect of a more comprehensive internal investigation.”
The move coincided with the board’s discovery that the Washington State Auditor’s Office was conducting a fraud investigation of the PDA, and of Moody’s failure to file financial reports that ultimately put vital financing at risk for the PDA’s signature development, the $12.5 million Makers Square.
Documents also show David Timmons, the acting associate executive director for the PDA, as well as the co-chairs of the agency’s board, had earlier “explicitly prohibited Moody from entering the office,” according to documents provided Friday to The Leader.
Despite the dark cloud of controversy over Robison, the organization’s financial footing, and fears the Makers Square project was over budget, records also detail how the PDA planned to give Robison a grand and grateful farewell as he retired last fall amid the organization’s continuing collapse into potential bankruptcy.
The Fort Worden PDA’s financial freefall became public in late October.
Timmons told the board of directors the PDA would be out of money by the end of the year unless $250,000 to $350,000 could be raised.
Payments on a loan from Kitsap Bank and two lines of credit that total $5.1 million would also need to be refinanced, with one line of credit — $1.5 million for the Makers Square project — due in December.
Timmons also told the board a second line of credit —
$2 million for Fort Worden’s “glamorous camping” tents, or “glamping” project, were due during the first quarter of 2021.
In all, the PDA was more than $9 million in debt. In addition to the $5.1 million owed to Kitsap Bank, another
$3 million was owed to the contractors for Makers Square (a project to rehabilitate three historic buildings into a hub for a year-round community of makers, artists, and educators), Timmons said at the time. Another $30,000 was owned to the contractor for work on the glamping project, and there was $600,000 in incomplete work on the glamping project, and $336,000 in incomplete work on the energy efficiency upgrade.
Timmons had learned the PDA had been paying its day-to-day bills by taking money that was supposed to be spent for construction of Makers Square and the glamping project, as well as money from a loan for energy efficiency upgrades. Approximately $400,000 was diverted from Makers Square, while $600,000 was shifted from the glamping project and $300,000 was taken from the energy efficiency project loan to pay for daily operations.
He also said the PDA had amassed debt on 19 credit cards.
At the time, Timmons declined to give details on who was ultimately responsible for the fort’s financial troubles.
What was more important, he said, was finding a way for the PDA to find funding that would help it survive as an agency. It was currently surviving month-to-month.
“We don’t have time to assess blame at this point,” he said.
Timmons pointed to the state audit that was underway, and said that would detail any financial irregularities.
BAD AUDIT COMING
Although Timmons first announced the PDA’s financial spiral in late October, fort officials had known for months that the authority was in a bad way.
The discovery of the PDA’s dire financial condition came to light as state auditors had launched a fraud investigation into the agency after Moody failed to submit annual financial reports to the state.
It wasn’t the first time Moody had missed the state deadline for sending in the fort’s financial statements.
The PDA had been on the state’s radar over its previous audits from 2016 and 2017, after state officials found the fort’s financial statements filled with errors, including cash amounts and deposits that had been misclassified, operating expenses and liabilities had been understated for both 2016 and 2017, and $3.5 million of debt that had been issued but was not disclosed. State auditors also said the 2017 financial statement had been submitted 180 days after the mandatory deadline, and the 2016 financial statement was
544 days late.
The Washington State Auditor’s Office released its highly critical review of the PDA’s operations in February 2020, but the negative report was quickly overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the statewide shutdown that followed in March.
Fort Worden closed, and Robison — who’d developed a reputation as an ineffective communicator who held information close to his vest — drew a rebuke from one of the board’s chairs after he shared a draft press release announcing the fort would be used as a base of operations for the local pandemic response as well as a quarantine location and housing for the homeless.
Board Co-Chair Todd Hutton told Robison the fort’s tenants, called partners, should be told in advance of the plan.
“We should NOT have our partners hear this through the media. That will not build trust,” Hutton told Robison in a March 29 email.
Added Board Member Jeff Jackson in another email to Robison: “Dave. Gotta make phone calls to partners in advance. Gotta. Must have to. Required.”
Robison replied: “STAND DOWN! Don’t you think we all know that!”
It was a draft release, Robison added, and said there wasn’t a formal agreement yet.
“Nothing will be announced until at least Wed. I will NOT be sharing any more information with you all until the announcement,” Robison added.
Robison’s response was not well-received.
“Dave, You are on thin ice here,” Hutton told him in an email.
“I suggest you take board members’ advice without defensiveness and with the understanding of the intent to protect the reputation of the PDA and its need for long-term positive relationships, while still attending to the greater public good in an emergency.
“You, Norm and I will need to have a very serious conversation once the dust has settled, but not too long,” Hutton wrote.
At the board meeting earlier that week, board members had been told Makers Square and the glamping project were on time and on budget.
But a subcontractor told the board at the same meeting that workers on Makers Square were not getting paychecks on time due to cash-flow problems with the PDA.
Robison told the board the builder on the project, Clark Construction, had suspended work because they were considered nonessential workers.
Moody noted that if operations didn’t start back up until September, the PDA would need a minimum of $500,000 in grants and loans to help cover operations.
The fort’s operations would be more than $60,000 in the red in July, she added, if the fort was still closed and the PDA made refunds on canceled events.
Moody announced her resignation July 8.
Internal turmoil at the PDA continued to simmer over in July as the agency was figuring out how it would reopen its food and leisure services at Fort Worden amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic; the board agreed on an August restart, six weeks away.
Robison remained at the center of conflict as he tried to let Moody back into her old office and access documents.
Director of Finance & Administration Sonya Baumstein, in a July 22 email to Hutton and Jackson, the board’s treasurer, said she was “being met with distrust and frankly, on some occasions, disrespect by Dave Robison.”
“I’m not sure how to function in this space where I feel that someone is at odds with allowing me to run financial scenarios to be able to make the best decision given the fort’s capacity,” she wrote.
Baumstein claimed Robison wanted them to let Moody back into the office but they resisted.
“None of us want to be a part of this activity. We have said ‘no’ as individuals to this and as a group in the same room with him just yesterday, but Dave R continues to press to allow Diane to come back into her office. I feel the need to put it in writing that there is the potential that she has committed fraud and that this is legally fraught at the very least, at most it is abetting what has already been done.”
“As the current ‘head of finance,’ I do not feel comfortable reporting to Dave in any capacity or in his ability to make clear-headed decisions about HR or Finance. I feel constantly stuck in the middle of poor decision-making, both trusted and not trusted at the same time to try to stabilize the financial health of this organization.”
In an email later that afternoon, Human Resources Manager Holly Height said: “I am having the lock changed ASAP to a non-Fort Worden lock.”
“I am deeply disturbed at the urgency of which Dave wants Diane to access her office and question his motive. This is my notice to you that this is occurring,” Height added.
More than a week passed until Timmons, in a
July 31 email marked “confidential” to the PDA’s co-chairs, stressed concerns about Robison’s ability to handle the Moody matter.
There was a concern about theft, too, with the PDA’s “glamping” project.
“It pains me to say this, but I am very nervous with Dave having to do with anything of Diane’s matters without direct supervision,” Timmons wrote.
“[Human Resources Manager] Holly told me that the former HR Director told her before she left, that Dave will be coming down after she leaves so be prepared. He did just that and asked for Diane’s file. He took the papers out and told Holly to shred them.
“She had no other choice in my opinion but to comply at that time,” Timmons added.
Timmons’ email also hinted that Moody’s abrupt resignation from the PDA followed a meeting where Robison was expected to, but didn’t, remove Moody from her position.
“Holly ended up having to deal with Diane in the end because Dave could not bring himself to do it,” Timmons wrote in the email. “What she describe[d] to me was Dave was totally incapable to address the issue and tell her directly what was about to happen.
“She told me she had to intervene and take over the meeting and direct Diane that she was being placed on leave subject to an investigation and to have her hand over her keys and laptop and leave the property,” Timmons wrote.
“So we can not trust Dave with anything to do with Diane,” he added.
Timmons also said an investigation into a theft of property, notably tools, was underway.
“It appears the glamping project burns through an incredible amount of disposal items and tools. These are small items but it appears to be excessive,” he wrote.
There was another issue, too.
Timmons recounted to the board co-chairs how earlier that day, Robison had approached Sonya today and instructed her to adjust his salary, adding he “was quite resentful about his status.”
Timmons said Robison was showing an “entitlement attitude” in his dealings with staff.
“I am growing very concern with Dave’s frame of mind. He is not the same Dave I have known and is shown signs to me of concern for his well being. I feel we may need to do something sooner than later to alleviate what appears to be a pattern of making bad choices and decisions.
“Sorry to bring this up tonight, but my ethics around this will trouble me all night if I do not share this with the two of you. I admire the two of you greatly and appreciate the opportunity and confidence you are entrusting me with, but I am deeply troubled by these actions and feel I must report this to you,” Timmons concluded.
SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
That same day — July 31 — Hutton and Holly were doing an inventory of the paperwork that was left behind in Moody’s office.
“Let me emphasize that there appear to be materials that David and Dave need to address ASAP, and Sonya probably has a few time-sensitive files as well. (Not unlike Jeff discovering in the last two days that our D&O premium had not been paid),” Hutton wrote in an email to Timmons and other PDA officials, referencing directors and officers liability insurance.
Jackson, the board’s treasurer, was growing increasingly frustrated with Robison, according to emails sent to the board’s co-chairs.
The email followed days of back-and-forth over what Robison was supposed to be paid in his now part-time role. The contract for Timmons — a former Port Townsend city manager who was hired in March 2020 to handle the PDA’s COVID emergency response efforts — was extended and the board also approved a new agreement that made him the PDA’s acting associate executive director,
“Todd and Norm,” Jackson wrote in an Aug. 10 email, “the three of us have to talk.”
“Whether you know it or not, or agree with me or not … we’re not sufficiently supporting or enabling the leadership change. And, until we three agree and execute our vision, it won’t happen and there will be the continuation of the regime or portions of it.
“I’m not on board with that,” he added.
Jackson was fuming after Robison made operational changes at the PDA after board members had already signed off on slides for a presentation on the agency’s finances.
“He’s no longer my CEO. In my mind he’s gone,” Jackson said of Robison in an email to Hutton. “He’s in title only until he raises enough to pay himself.
“We need to resolve this before we start to have casualties,” Jackson added.
In another email, Jackson added it was “bad news” that “Dave R is still in the game. I get we’re transitioning but not fast or clear enough and the three of us look partially ineffective.”
Jackson quickly apologized for the email outburst, calling it “not helpful and in poor form.”
He offered to resign.
Hutton wasn’t having it.
“In my mind, you aren’t going anywhere (unless you really want to),” Hutton said in an email back to Jackson.
“We do need to reconcile our perspectives of Dave, and we need to stop listening to complaining staff members to the extent that some of the complaints are not grounded in fact or reality,” Hutton added. “Some may be, but if there are specific ongoing problems that you hear about, you need to share them with either Norm or me.”
“Dave needs to let go and focus on public and private fundraising, government relations, liaison to [Washington State Parks], and long-range planning,” he added.
The board’s opinion of Robison hardened by the end of August.
In a closed-door executive session Aug. 24, the board talked about Robison’s job performance.
In a letter to Robison two days later, the co-chairs of the board said the discussion was needed “in light of the recent serious financial irregularities and your apparent lack of oversight and management of Diane Moody.”
The letter, signed by Hutton and Board Co-Chair Norm Tonina, said the board found the allegations “troubling and, if true, cause Board members to question their confidence in your leadership.”
Eight allegations were raised in the letter to Robison:
“- Your direction to the PDA’s HR Manager to shred documents that you removed from Diane Moody’s personnel file.
– Your pressuring of staff on several occasions to allow Diane access to her secured office to ‘clean up files,’ when the Acting Associate Executive Director and co-chairs explicitly prohibited Moody from entering the office.
– The lack of adherence to established internal controls designed to ensure the organization remains predictable, stable, and in financial control.
– A working relationship with Diane Moody where she often operated autonomously with very little oversight or review.
– The fact the State Auditor’s Office opened a fraud investigation based on Diane’s failure to submit annual financials in concert with concerns the auditors allegedly observed during the Audit.
– Diane’s behavior at the staff retreat where she was apparently inebriated and was disruptive in her comments and behavior. This aligns to a pattern in Diane’s behavior that, while addressed with her in January, never was driven to completion.
– The state of Makers Square, which appears to be over budget, and with the LCP grants and important Historic Tax Credits at potential risk due to the PDA’s financial condition (including, the state of the financials, which pre-dates COVID).
– Concern amongst staff and board members about your judgment and decision-making based on the above stated allegations, along with other concerns.”
The board chairs told Robison an investigation was needed to examine the claims, “especially in light of the very serious financial situation that is unfolding.”
Robison was told his authority to sign contracts and other agreements and payments was being suspended.
In a following meeting, Robison was given a chance to respond to the claims.
Notes of that meeting from the board’s co-chairs, provided to The Leader via a public records request, show that Robison said the allegation that he wanted records shredded from Moody’s personnel file was “troubling” and “he feels that he is being ‘set-up’ with this allegation.”
Robison said he did not recall taking materials from Moody’s file and asking that they be shredded. Robison welcomed an investigation into the allegation, according to notes from the meeting.
“He believes the allegation of ‘pressuring staff’ is overstated and inaccurate,” the notes also said.
Robison also said the employee who made the allegation “tends to over-react.”
On the claim that he let Moody operate autonomously with very little oversight or review, Robison said there was “major truth” in the allegation, and that “he did place major trust in Diane.”
Robison said Moody was overcommitted in her job responsibilities of overseeing finances and operations, which was due in part to the decision to not fill the vacant position of general manager.
Robison also said he had been monitoring Moody’s behavior, but admitted her required counseling was apparently never completed.
Ultimately, Robison said he was responsible and offered to take a leave of absence.
“Dave understands that he cannot blame this situation on COVID or Diane. He recognizes that he is ultimately accountable—the buck stops with him,” the board co-chairs said in a summary of the meeting. “Dave fully understands the concerns about his decision making and judgment. He acknowledges that he has not been ‘up to par’ for the last six months to a year. He said, ‘This is very distressing to me. I take responsibility.’”
The three agreed that an outside investigator should be hired to look into the allegations where there remained a difference of opinion — that he asked PDA’s human resources manager to shred documents that Robison removed from Moody’s personnel file, and that he pressured staff to let her get into her locked office to “clean up files” after the acting associate executive director and the board’s co-chairs explicitly prohibited Moody from entering the office.
HAIL TO THE CHIEF
Fort Worden announced Robison’s retirement Sept. 3.
His last day would be Nov. 15.
In an email to the PDA board, Hutton and Tonina said Robison had been planning to retire for more than a year, and had hoped to step down in fall 2020 after Makers Square and the glamping project were finished.
The press release announcing Robison’s departure, nine years after he started at the PDA, marked “the formal end of a 30-year career of working to make Port Townsend a stronger community.”
It noted how the organization grew from 14 employees and an operating budget of about $1 million in 2014 to an operating budget of over
$7 million and 170 employees in 2019, and said Robison was “ending on a high note.”
“Dave’s vision, passion, and ability to build and leverage a broad network of stakeholder relationships are what propelled the Fort Worden PDA’s progress all the way back to 2011, when the PDA was first chartered by the City of Port Townsend,” Tonina said in the press release.
Within the PDA, there was talk of a farewell with video messages and a champagne toast to Robison on Zoom.
A drive-by parade was also suggested.
A draft proclamation praising Robison was prepared.
Support across the entire PDA board was lacking, however.
“Sorry, I don’t think it’s appropriate at this time to do this. Let’s not be tone deaf,” Board Member Jane Kilburn said in an email.
“Sorry. I just can’t support this in any way,” she said of the ideas to celebrate Robison’s service.
Hutton said he and Tonina, the co-chair, would sign the resolution themselves.
“Dave deserves that much for a long career in PT,” he noted in an email to board members.
The outside investigation never happened.
The board co-chairs began considering possible investigators following their meeting with Robison on the allegations, but soon decided to conduct an internal investigation.
Both Robison and Moody had high-limit American Express cards, and Hutton began a detailed review of the PDA’s credit card charges, which included hundreds of dollars in restaurant bills, weekly gas purchases when it appeared Robison hadn’t been driving much, and thousands of dollars that had been charged to a Safeway grocery store in Phoenix, Arizona.
“The Safeway Phoenix charges are questionable, unless the PDA has a corporate account and buys some food staples at retail price,” Hutton wrote in an email to Tonina.
A review of credit card charges made on Robison’s Business Gold credit card for the PDA totaled $366,332 between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 28, 2020.
Credit card charges made on Moody’s credit card for the PDA totaled $81,193 between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 28, 2020.
A forensic accountant hired by the PDA to review credit card charges found there were at least 20 credit cards held by various employees and in vendor names in the PDA, “some with balances in the tens of thousands of dollars.”
THE PAPER TRAIL
The PDA released hundreds of documents to The Leader following a request made Dec. 17 for any records detailing Robison’s job performance.
Four installments of records were provided, with the final installment of 227 pages provided to The Leader on Friday.
Robison and Moody were given advance notice of the records release to the newspaper by the PDA on Feb. 9, and given an opportunity to seek a court order to prevent their release.
Moody notified the PDA of her intention to seek a court order Feb. 26, and the PDA set a deadline of March 5 for receipt of the court order from Jefferson County Superior Court.
An attorney representing Moody asked the PDA for a deadline extension until March 12 to obtain a temporary restraint on release of the records.
Moody contacted the PDA late last week to note that a court order would not be sought to prevent release of the documents.
Timmons recently told the board the state audit is expected to be finished sometime this month.