At Pr. George’s Show Place Arena, taxpayers foot the bill for football tickets, other questionable expenses

Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST - DeMatha's Jairus Lyles, right, looks to set up a play in in the fourth quarter of a February 2011 game at the Show Place Arena.

Season tickets to Navy football games. A $500 payment to the Democratic Party in Calvert County. Tickets to Bowie Baysox games. Food charged to the office account to feed the family of the top arena executive at a high school graduation.

In each instance, the taxpayers picked up the tab — as much as $40,000 in questionable spending on hospitality alone over five years, according to a report about the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro.

The publicly funded regional entertainment venue, managed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, loses about $3 million annually.

The spending habits of arena officials, the report says, were in many instances “improper” and did “not represent prudent business deals for the facility.” When internal auditors came calling last year, at least one official, not named in the report, sought to delete e-mails, the report says.

The findings, outlined in a 20-page assessment by the commission’s three-person audit committee, largely match those of a draft audit by the agency’s chief auditor, Abinet Y. Belachew, reported in October by The Washington Post. Belachew declined to continue the audit, citing political pressure after receiving a harsh letter from Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a close associate of the arena’s top manager, William R. Chambers. The commission opted to continue the probe, hiring the Akin Gump law firm, which compiled much of the information the committee used in its report.

The audit committee members — Bruce Berkey, Amy Presley and Shuanise Washington — said in their report that the arena’s fiscal health has been problematic for several years. It is “disappointing, and recent trends may be cause for concern,” they said.

The report does not name names, but it points to a series of irregularities, many of which were linked in Belachew’s draft audit to Chambers, an elected member of the Calvert school board who ran the arena for nearly two decades. Chambers retired as head of the arena after Belachew began his probe.

The audit committee found “dubious” hospitality expenses; a “dangerous sense of personal entitlement” (linked to food charged for Chambers’s daughter’s high school graduation); possible conflicts of interest for doing business with his spouse, Kelly Chambers, who heads Calvert’s United Way; and a failure by top agency officials to carefully monitor management of the arena.

Chambers repaid the food charges after Belachew’s audit began.

“Some of these things should never be able to happen again,” said Betty Hewlett, the bi-county commission’s vice chairman who took over last year as head of the Prince George’s County park and planning agency about the same time Belachew began the audit after receiving a tip.

Commission officials decried what they said was a “leak of confidential information” to The Post that they are investigating.

They also said they had begun to change their oversight of the arena, which hosts sporting events, horse shows, concerts, business meetings and high school graduations.

Chambers, whose retirement coincided with that of two other top arena officials after Belachew began his investigation, has said that he did nothing wrong and that the agency doesn’t understand marketing.

In a statement, Chambers said the arena’s management “took the arena from zero to $1.8 million in annual bookings, winning national awards. We marketed heavily to Southern Maryland because that is where much of the bookings and patron market was located. . . . Now more than 200 arena customers have left, including many in Southern Maryland. Sadly, the commission simply does not understand the arena business and the importance of marketing. This will cost the county millions of dollars more in lost bookings and economic spinoffs.”

Belachew, meanwhile, was demoted in February, and his pay was cut about $30,000. He is on paid leave while agency officials, who say his status is unrelated to the audit or Miller’s letter, conduct an investigation.

The audit committee compiled its findings from information provided by Akin Gump, including some from Belachew and his audit team. The audit committee does not have its own hiring authority.

Neither Francoise Carrier, chairman of the bi-county commission, nor Hewlett would discuss the possibility of any legal fallout from the findings and referred questions to outside agencies.

A spokesman for the Prince George’s prosecutor said no referral had been made from the commission. Federal investigators, who have spent several years in Prince George’s looking into a pay-to-play scheme led by former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D), did not respond to a request for comment.

 
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