Sex, money and lies at City Hall
Krystal Griffin with her attorney Sam Shamansky at her sentencing in Franklin County Common Pleas Court in 2006. Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
This story appeared in the May 2007 issue of Columbus Monthly.
The middle-aged mother of two, dressed casually in a loose-fitting blue shirt, settles into the chair beside her attorney, Sam Shamansky. On this late August afternoon, it’s expected that Krystal Griffin, the unlikely femme fatale in the biggest scandal to hit Columbus City Hall in years, will come clean about her relationship with Wayne Roberts, the former Recreation and Parks chief suspected of giving her a no-show job. Thanks to two search warrants and a month of surveillance, the two detectives in the cramped interview room have the goods on Griffin—compromising photos, an incriminating paper trail—and her attorney knows it.
“This is her opportunity to be straight,” says Shamansky at the start of the video-recorded interview. “And she’s going to be straight, or else.” He glares at Griffin, the sister of Ohio State football legend Archie Griffin. She responds with a nervous smile. “I don’t have time for bullshit, and neither do these gentlemen,” Shamansky says.
But Griffin is less than forthcoming, offering few new details, showing little remorse and minimizing her actions.
“Krystal, you need to be honest,” Shamansky says.
“I am,” she says. “I feel like regardless of what I say, no one’s going to believe me.”
With his client clamming up, Shamansky plays an unusual role—bad cop. Over the next hour, he emerges as Griffin’s most aggressive interrogator. He needles, probes, refuses to back off. He drops his pen and looks away in disgust when one of her answers displeases him. “You were getting super cushy special treatment,” Shamansky says about halfway through the interview. “I’m your lawyer, and it’s apparent as hell.”
It’s an odd dynamic—an attorney hammering his own client as the police sit back and let him do their dirty work. The verbal beat-down also is a clear sign that this case isn’t going to trial. Shamansky announces that there’s no mystery involved and says, “You’re his girlfriend. And he likes you. And he controls the purse strings.”
Slowly, Shamansky extracts the truth. Griffin admits to an affair with Roberts, who’s married with a son, and to fudging her time sheets. “I got more lax when we started sleeping together,” she says. She also admits that Roberts was aware of the fraud. “He knew you weren’t working?” Shamansky asks.
“He knew,” Griffin responds.
“You must have discussed it with him.”
“Yeah,” she whispers.
Earlier, a turning point occurred when Shamansky grabbed his client’s wrist to calm her after a particularly testy exchange. “Everybody knows what’s what,” he told her. “You started getting friendly with this guy. Your shit was real loose. You turned in hours that you may not have worked, right?”
“Right,” Griffin said.
“So why is that so hard to say?”
She offered no response—and didn’t need to. She and Roberts had personified the American Dream. He was Mayor Mike Coleman’s self-made cabinet member—the guy who, as he repeatedly said, went from “the mop to the top” at the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department. And she belongs to the most beloved family in Columbus—the amazing Griffins, eight siblings (Krystal and seven boys) who overcame poverty, excelled at sports, earned college degrees, kept their noses clean and were hailed by the late Gov. Jim Rhodes as “the first family of Ohio.”
Roberts and Griffin were heroes and role models—and they threw it all away. He resigned from his $124,000-a-year job once the scandal—a perfect mix of fraud, adultery and prominent people—went public in early August. And both would plead guilty later to systematically stealing some $50,000 from the city of Columbus since 2002. Perhaps clouded by love and arrogance, they had become cautionary tales.
“It’s embarrassing, right?” Shamansky asked.
“It is,” she said.
The Ford Mustang pulls into the Westerville hotel for the third time in three weeks. Griffin steps out of the car and heads straight to room 219, where Wayne Roberts is waiting for her. As is their custom, he arrived first, secured the room and, apparently, called Griffin to let her know where to go.
Columbus detectives had followed Griffin to the Baymont Inn and Suites on South State Street—one of their two Central Ohio hotel rendezvous spots (the other was the Baymont on International Gateway near Port Columbus airport). Earlier in the month, police obtained a court order to put a small GPS device on the undercarriage of the car and had been tracking Griffin’s every move since. Two detectives work surveillance and another mans a computer at the office relaying satellite data to the detectives on the road. At one point on this late July evening, Roberts, in sunglasses, a dress shirt and tie, leaves the hotel room and carries a bag of ice to his car. He intended to dump the ice in a cooler in his trunk, but the bottom of the bag breaks before he gets the chance. “It was kinda funny,” recalls Sgt. Hal Hansen, the head of the Columbus police’s economic crime unit.
Roberts, 56, and Griffin, 42, have known each other for years. He grew up with her brothers and coached Griffin in track. An Eastmoor High School graduate, Griffin earned a track scholarship to Drake University in Iowa. She later transferred to Wayne State College in Nebraska, where she graduated with an accounting degree, which she used to land a good-paying job at Nationwide in Columbus. In a 1984 Columbus Monthly cover story about the Griffins, Krystal’s brother Daryle called his sister the smartest member of the family.
The youngest of Margaret and James Griffin’s eight children, Krystal grew up in the shadow of her older brother Archie, who won his two Heismans before she graduated from high school. “It’s hard,” she told this magazine in 1984. “People say I’m Archie Griffin’s sister. They don’t know me as just Krystal. I love my brother, but you wanna have your own name, too.” Griffin returned to that theme again 15 years later in another Columbus Monthly story about her family. “They’ll never live it down,” she said, referring to the next generation of Griffins. “They’ll always be the niece or nephew of the two-time Heisman Trophy winner.” (Krystal declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Roberts, meanwhile, was one of the most remarkable City Hall success stories of the past three decades. The son of a Recreation and Parks custodian, Roberts grew up in the city’s recreation centers, even working alongside his father in high school cleaning buildings and mowing lawns. The city’s recreation programs (sports, in particular) kept Roberts out of trouble and expanded his horizons. A standout athlete at DeSales High School, Roberts earned a scholarship to Dakota Wesleyan University, where he starred on the small South Dakota college’s track team (setting eight school records, three of which stood for more than three decades). “He’s a product of what we do,” says Patty Harris, a close friend of Roberts and an assistant director in the city Recreation and Parks Department. “He fully understands what recreation can do for a child.”
After graduating from college in 1974 with a double major in community recreation and sociology, Roberts immediately returned to Columbus and landed a job with the city as a recreation leader. Over the next three decades, he steadily rose through the ranks and befriended plenty of powerful people—former department director Jim Barney, former Mayor Buck Rinehart and former City Council president Cindy Lazarus, to name a few. (Both Rinehart and Lazarus wrote letters in support of him to Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael Holbrook, who sentenced Roberts and Griffin in late January.)
During his 32-year career with the city, Roberts regularly worked late hours and weekends—“CRPD’s 24-7 man,” one employee called him in an e-mail—and refused to let sickness, broken bones, surgeries, even a gruesome snowblower mis-hap in 2002 keep him away from his job. After the machine cut two fingers off his right hand, Roberts ordered staffers to deliver work to his Riverside hospital bed while he recovered. “That was Wayne,” Harris says. “If he was on vacation, he would be calling in.”
He also found the time to mentor plenty of young people, especially during the 10 years he ran the Peabody Track Club—work that provided no pay, but plenty of satisfaction. Through Peabody, Roberts helped many promising track athletes improve their skills and secure college scholarships. “He’s a very disciplined person, very intense,” says Janet Smith, whose daughter, Tiffany, earned a scholarship to Malone College in Canton with Roberts’s help. “He wants to get the job done, and he wants it done right, and you have to appreciate that.”
In 2000, the Columbus Recreation and Parks Commission fulfilled Roberts’s lifelong dream and named him director of the department—a sprawling enterprise that includes 230 parks, 31 centers, seven golf courses, two marinas and the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging. It was an emotional moment. “He cried,” recalls parks commissioner Jerry Saunders, then the head of the panel. “There were a lot of young folks around. They were hugging him, and they were all excited.”
Admirers often describe Roberts as tough but fair. “He had high standards,” Harris says. “If you don’t set the bar high, you are not going to achieve.” But not everyone appreciated his style.
An imposing man with a thick mustache, Roberts could be a polarizing figure. He ruled his department with an iron fist, never lost his sprinter’s swagger and zoomed around Columbus in a Chrysler with vanity plates that read “MR WAR”—a nickname, derived from his initials, that matched his feisty personality. “The man would drive 90 miles an hour,” recalls a Columbus detective who investigated Roberts. Some employees thrived under Roberts’s heavy hand, embracing his tough love and discipline, even remaining loyal after Columbus police uncovered his misdeeds. Others, however, wondered what little thing might prompt his next temper tantrum. “There’s so much to this guy,” a former employee told police.
Talking to detectives, the former employee recalled how Roberts made one staffer his personal whipping boy. “[Roberts] was raging in my office, and he said, ‘I’m gonna make that motherfucker commit suicide.’ ” Roberts also left behind a trail of rude, profane e-mails sent to subordinates: “This shit has to end!”—June 2005. “I want to pull everyone in my office and let everyone have it.”—July 2005. “I real-ly don’t care if Tim [city custodian and union leader Tim Wyche] and his members are happy, how about you all trying to make me happy!”—July 2005. “It is my ass on the line when things are fucked up! . . . It appears that you and I are not on the same page, and I am the LEADER!”—November 2005. The recipient of the last message apparently wasn’t too offended; she later sent a letter praising her former boss to Judge Holbrook. (Roberts declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Another former employee says Roberts used “fear and intimidation” to keep staffers in line. And one of his best weapons was his “personal shopper”—an undercover employee who supposedly went to department facilities and reported back to Roberts. “He used that threat to intimidate people,” says the former employee, who’s still afraid of Roberts and requested anonymity as a result.
The shopper was a mysterious figure around the department. No one recalled ever seeing him or her (most weren’t sure on the gender). And Roberts personally handled the employee’s paperwork, hand delivering time sheets to the department’s payroll division, according to the former employee interviewed by police. In fact, just a few people within Roberts’s inner circle knew the shopper’s name—Krystal Griffin.
The police investigation began with a June meeting at the home of a retired Recreation and Parks employee. Before leaving his job, the tipster discovered Griffin’s name on a payroll sheet. She had worked for Roberts for nearly a decade—first helping out with special events and later serving as his personal shopper—but the employee didn’t recognize the name and, after his own informal investigation, concluded Griffin was a phantom employee.
The tipster also heard a rumor that Griffin was Roberts’s girlfriend and passed on the info to police. It was no secret that Roberts was close to Griffin, a twice-divorced single mother. He often would pick up her two kids from school and take them to dance recitals. And Griffin referred to Roberts as the “godfather” of her children.
Detectives didn’t need long to confirm the tips. They tailed Griffin for almost all of July, discovering the hotel encounters with Roberts (five of them over 19 days) that lasted one to two hours. Griffin also did no work at any city facility in July—and even was out of state for eight days at the beginning of the month vacationing in Myrtle Beach, according to credit card records subpoenaed by police. Still, the city paid her via direct deposit on July 15.
The cops had more than enough evidence to make their next move. So on a Wednesday morning in early August, the 10-person economic crime unit hit the Recreation and Parks Department in a wave, executing search warrants at its West Whittier Street administrative office and a nearby warehouse and interviewing Roberts and several of his top lieutenants. Police seized personnel records, payroll information and Griffin’s time sheets going back to 2001 (the oldest records available).
The time sheets were damning. “I really expected to see times spread all over the place,” Hansen says. “If you look at them, they’re just Monday through Friday, five to nine, almost every week. Half of the time, she worked at her office at Nationwide till eight at night. They just weren’t even trying to hide anything at that point.” Plus, the sheets listed Griffin’s place of work as City Hall (“She had never been in City Hall,” Hansen says) and confirmed one of the investigation’s most sordid details—Griffin was on the clock during some of the hotel encounters with Roberts.
Detectives did a delicate dance with Roberts. Not wanting him to clam up during the interview in his City Hall office, his two questioners lied to him (a legal interrogation technique), claiming they were investigating whether Griffin was defrauding Nationwide, not the city. “Nationwide provides a lot of money to the city of Columbus,” a detective explained, according to a transcript of the interview.
The tactic worked. Police got the key admission they needed (Roberts said Griffin worked directly for him), and Roberts confessed to having an affair with Griffin for the previous year and a half.
At one point, a detective showed Roberts the incriminating hotel photos. “People who put this together for us gave us pictures of the two of you meeting at a hotel,” a detective says.
“Am I being investigated?” Roberts asks.
“No, no, no,” a detective responds.
Two months later, Roberts did a second interview with police, this time with legal representation at his side. Once his indiscretions were revealed, Roberts turned to power attorney Larry James for guidance. Though criminal defense isn’t his specialty, James has represented other public officials (former Franklin County Commissioner Jack Foulk, former Columbus City Councilwoman Les Wright) when they’ve faced legal troubles. Besides, few folks in Columbus know how to better manage the media minefield than the smooth and well-connected James, a former director of the city’s public safety department.
With James and his colleague Phil Templeton, a criminal defense specialist, beside him in the small police interview room, Roberts, dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, sits down to talk with Hansen, the lead investigator, and Lt. Michael Pagnanelli, Hansen’s supervisor. His tough-guy reputation notwithstanding, Roberts is soft-spoken in the video-recorded interview, his answers barely audible.
At first, Roberts denies wrongdoing. “You honestly believe that she worked every one of those hours that you signed off on—that’s what you’re saying?” Hansen asks. “That’s what I’m saying,” Roberts says.
His answers frustrate the detectives. Hansen points out that they have proof he’s lying—photographs of him and Griffin at hotels when the time sheets (approved and signed by him) say she was working.
“Give me a second,” James tells detectives about 30 minutes into the interview. After a short break for Roberts to talk with his lawyers privately (James later called it a “come-to-Jesus” moment), the interview resumes—and Roberts is a changed man.
“Why don’t you start over and give us the facts,” Pagnanelli says.
“I signed the time sheets,” Roberts says. “There were times I knew she didn’t work, and I signed them.”
No other city officials have been disciplined in connection with the scandal. Auditors reviewed the department’s finances in the aftermath and confirmed that just Griffin and Roberts were involved in the scheme, says Terri Leist, an assistant parks and recreation director. “On the whole, this department came through that audit looking pretty darn good,” Leist says.
Other prominent folks also came out relatively unscathed. Griffin’s most famous sibling, Archie Griffin, the head of the Ohio State University Alumni Association, sits on the Recreation and Parks Commission, one of three independent panels that oversee city departments (the others are health and civil service). Columbus police found nothing implicating Archie Griffin or any other parks commissioner. “I’m as skeptical as anybody,” Hansen says. “In my line of work, we become that way. But I do believe he didn’t know.” (Archie Griffin declined to be interviewed for this story.)
And Mayor Coleman has faced little criticism, even though he twice backed Roberts for the director’s job—as a councilman in 1993, when the commission went outside the city and hired Roberts’s predecessor, Gary Fenton, and seven years later when Roberts got the job. “I had no problems with the mayor’s office or anything else,” Hansen says. “Nobody tried to block anything. Everybody was fully gung-ho with letting us do whatever we needed to do.”
Still, Bill Todd, Coleman’s underdog Republican challenger in the November general election, says he plans to talk about Roberts on the campaign trail. And the parks commission did deliver one mild rebuke to the mayor: In January, commissioners rejected his choice to replace Roberts and instead hired Alan McKnight, the department’s planning administrator. Coleman had endorsed Trudy Bartley, a development official who served as interim director, but former commission chief Tom Kaplin says McKnight, a landscape architect who’s worked for the city for more than 30 years, was the better candidate. (Kathy Duffy Espy replaced Kaplin as commission president in March.)
In January, Griffin and Roberts made their last joint appearance in court. Neither acknowledged the other as they took turns apologizing for their crimes. Judge Holbrook sentenced both to five years of probation and “Holbrook’s holidays”—three days in jail during the Christmas holidays for Roberts and Griffin, with another three-day term over the Fourth of July for Rob-erts. Both also got community service—200 hours for Griffin and 500 for Roberts, who was assigned to work with the Favor Foundation, a nonprofit that assists ex-cons reentering society. Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, who asked for 60 days in jail for Roberts, says he was disappointed by Holbrook’s sentence. “A lot of people were,” he says.
Holbrook defended his decision in an interview, pointing out that neither Griffin nor Roberts had previous criminal records and together paid about $80,000 in restitution ($50,000 stolen from the city since 2002 and $30,000 for the police investigation) prior to the Jan. 29 sentencing. “If you gave everybody a maximum sentence, everybody thinks you’re a tough judge,” Holbrook says. “That’s not your job. Your job is to do what’s fair, what’s just and what’s right in our society.” An attorney uninvolved in the case also says the sentence was appropriate. “There was no way either one of them was going to jail, given the fact that there was immediate cooperation, and they paid back whatever was taken,” says veteran criminal defense attorney Sam Weiner.
Whether they spend much time behind bars or not, both Griffin and Roberts are paying a heavy price. Griffin lost her job at Nationwide, which police say paid her more than $70,000 a year, after pleading guilty in November to theft in office and tampering with records. “She now struggles to support herself and her family,” her attorney Shamansky wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Roberts, who pleaded guilty to tampering with records and complicity in theft in office, appears better off financially, thanks to the roughly $80,000 a year he’s receiving from the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System for the rest of his life. But money tells just part of the story. “Prior to this summer, if you asked anyone what the two most important things were in Wayne’s life, the answer would have been his family and his work for the City of Columbus,” wrote his wife, Teri, to Holbrook. “By his recent actions, he has seriously damaged one and destroyed the other. That is probably worse punishment than anything the courts might impose.”
Image was important to Roberts. He criticized staffers after finding trash in the softball dugouts and cars parked on the grass at Berliner park. And he instituted a strict dress policy at the department facilities, requiring employees to wear ash gray polo shirts and navy blue khakis, skirts or shorts (in the summer) to create a more professional look. Now, Roberts’s own image is ruined—and he’s to blame. “It’s been a colossal failure on his part as far as judgment is concerned,” says James, his attorney. “He’s been embarrassed. It’s hurt his family life. The luster has been taken off an otherwise great career.” Adds Kaplin, the former parks commission chief: “Wayne became a tragedy.”
James says Roberts is focusing on healing these days. “He spends a lot of time with his son and doing odd things here and there to try and occupy his time,” he says. Saunders, the parks commissioner, stays in touch with Roberts. “I understand people do make mistakes,” Saunders says. “This is a very difficult time. So I do check on him and will continue to check on him.”
But Saunders has never asked him the question that’s on so many minds: Why? Neither Roberts nor Griffin seemed to need the money. And they both had so much to lose if caught.
Clearly, the two cared for each other. “I miss you so much that it hurts more than my hand,” Roberts wrote in a 2002 e-mail he sent to Griffin shortly after his snowblower accident. And the two stayed in touch even after he resigned in disgrace and their relationship went public. In her Aug. 31 interview with police, she said she was worried about his health. “I call him because I know he has sugar diabetes,” she said.
Hubris also may have played a role. “It probably grew the same way any theft grows,” Hansen says. “The more you get away with, the more gullible you get. And it just grew to the point that they realized they could pay her, and she didn’t have to do anything.”
The whole thing leaves Saunders shaking his head. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” he says. “It just doesn’t.”
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.