In Alabama, Holmes is one of the Scout executives who volunteers say has not been responsive to complaints about ghost units. Volunteers have been irked at Holmes, who did not respond to five phone calls requesting an interview, and others over the handling of the council's $7 million annual budget, the proposed sale of old campgrounds and the symbolism of the council's $2 million Birmingham headquarters.
Volunteers blanched after discovering this year that Holmes was paid $221,369 in 2003 -- more than eight times the $26,735 median household income in Birmingham and significantly more than Alabama's other Scout executives, who made between $82,000 and $145,800 in the same year.
Randy Haines, a Compass Bank executive and incoming chairman of the Greater Alabama Council's volunteer board, a group stocked with some of the Alabama business world's elite, declined to discuss any aspect of the organization's publicly disclosed finances or to say whether the council has hired a defense lawyer. Haines said that he is unaware of manipulated numbers but that the council is cooperating with investigators and conducting an internal audit.
"I really don't want to get into a lot of detail," he said. "We're restricting our statements."
A Boy Scouts of America spokesman, who did not return calls for this article, told the Associated Press that the national organization is "dedicated to the accurate reporting of membership." Federal prosecutors also did not return calls about the case.
Backus, one of the volunteers, said membership scams have been an "open secret" for years in Alabama. They even had nicknames. One was called "Up and Out" and involved signing up Scouts near the end of the year and then double-counting them as new members on the rolls of that year and the next, she said. Volunteers also talk of getting long lists of units with fake names from council headquarters and from mid-level district executives. Backus ran across the problem seven years ago when she tried to contact unit leaders about a Cub Scout day camp.
"They'd say, 'That pack has been dead for years,' " she recalled. "You're seeing all these units on paper, but you're not seeing any people. . . . You can only blame it on bad record-keeping for so long."
Already, charities in Alabama have begun to worry about fallout. These are not easy times to raise money in the financially struggling state, and the Boy Scouts' woes may only compound the difficulties.
"Any scandal -- or the appearance of a scandal -- hurts all charities," said Steve Kirkpatrick, chief executive of the Madison County United Way chapter, which has given the Scouts' Greater Alabama Council more than $900,000 since 1998. "People use it as a reason not to give."
Yet, as the case unfolds, Scouts are still bucking for merit badges in Alabama, still reciting their oaths, even as their parents fret that the grown-ups' troubles will seep down into the psyches of the kids. The council is making plans, too, touting one of its next big events. It will be in March, and it is called "A Night of Honor."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.