JACKSONVILLE, Ala. -- The middle-aged parents, unmistakable in their Boy Scout leader browns and khakis, clumped outside a training meeting here, their worries spilling out. These are troubled days for the grown-ups at the Scout get-togethers sprinkled among the churches, back yards and schoolhouses of Alabama's rolling northeast.
Federal subpoenas have been flying around. FBI agents have been asking questions, and the administrators down at the Boy Scouts' Greater Alabama Council headquarters in Birmingham have had to fess up to hundreds of volunteers that their 22-county organization is under federal investigation. The same U.S. attorney's office in Birmingham that this week opened its case against HealthSouth executive Richard M. Scrushy, one of the marquee corporate corruption probes in the nation, is also investigating the local Boy Scouts.
Volunteers say paid Scout leaders have created fictitious "ghost units" for years to pump up membership numbers to trick donor groups and charities, including the United Way, into giving them more money. In some cases, the alleged membership scams do not even appear to have been very clever. Volunteer Tom Willis, a 1960s Eagle Scout who is also the father of two Eagle Scouts, says he was presented with a roster for a supposed group of 30 youths in Fort Payne, Ala. -- each had the last name Doe.
"It seems to go against the basic things Scouts are about: trustworthy, loyal . . . trustworthy, most of all," volunteer Susan Backus said as the stragglers trickled out of the Jacksonville training meeting.
The uproar in Alabama, the latest in a string of at least five bogus-membership scandals in Boy Scout councils around the country since the 1990s, has exposed an undercurrent of tension between unpaid volunteers and the professionals who are paid -- sometimes handsomely -- to run Boy Scout programs.
The United Way of Central Alabama, which received a subpoena and is one of several chapters that contributed money to the Greater Alabama Council, has given more than $6 million to the council in the past five years. Big membership numbers can translate to big donations, promotions and pay raises, many volunteers say, providing temptation for ambitious Scout leaders to engage in creative accounting.
"Just because these people call themselves Boy Scout professionals doesn't mean they're going to adhere to the principles of the Boy Scouts," said Ralph Stark, a Boy Scout volunteer in Locust Fork, Ala., and a retired investigator for the Office of Personnel Management. "They're playing the game of a businessperson."
Stark and other Boy Scout volunteers here describe a high-pressure recruiting environment, something akin to the get-the-numbers-up hype of a sales convention. Boy Scout enrollment has been declining at the same time that the organization has been dealing with lingering controversies about the dismissal of gay and atheist Scout leaders. The number of youths in Scouting programs -- including Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and coed Venturing groups -- dropped more than 5 percent in 2003 from the year before, to 3.2 million, according to Boy Scout statistics.
The decline worries volunteers, such as Backus and Stark, who volunteer 20 hours a week and rave about the impact Boy Scout programs can have on young people, particularly those without solid "family or religious" foundations. But the possible manipulation of numbers, both here and elsewhere, worries them even more.
The Boy Scouts have a long history of membership imbroglios. In the mid-1970s, a large council in Chicago was caught boosting minority enrollment figures. During the 1990s, councils in Los Angeles, Vicksburg, Miss., and Jacksonville, Fla., were tangled in ghost-unit controversies. In the past few months, as the Alabama case has grown from suspicions to a publicly acknowledged investigation, a civil rights leader in Atlanta has accused local Boy Scout leaders of falsifying minority enrollment figures to get more grant money. U.S. Postal Service investigators and a federal grand jury in Dallas have looked into allegations as recently as 2003 that a large Boy Scout council manipulated membership numbers.
"It can't be happening in so many parts of the country unless there's pressure from the top," Willis said.
Sometimes the controversies have exacted a financial toll. Private grant money was pulled in Jacksonville, Fla. Charity donations decreased when the Los Angeles council corrected its numbers. The Dallas council has gotten less United Way money since deleting nearly 12,000 names, which was about a quarter of its alleged membership and included a large number of names in low-income areas, from the rolls.
A common denominator in the Dallas and Alabama cases is Ronnie Holmes, the top-ranking executive in the Greater Alabama Council, one of four Boy Scout councils in the state. Holmes was a regional administrator when allegations of numbers-fixing arose in Dallas in 2000. Dale Draper, a Dallas Boy Scout employee who discovered the phony membership figures, said his concerns were "swept under the rug" by Holmes during an internal audit.
"Before they did the audit, he told me, 'I can tell you, we won't find anything,' " said Draper, now a Scout volunteer in Utah. "It seemed like the good-old-boy network."