published Saturday, July 26th, 2014

Auditor to hunt missing Bessie Smith Strut cash

Bessie Smith Cultural Center
Bessie Smith Cultural Center
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The board of directors at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is asking for professional help with the unsolved mystery of how much money was actually stolen after the Bessie Smith Strut festival in June.

An independent auditing firm, Henderson Hutcherson & McCullough, is expected to deliver findings and recommendations on the center's financial management and controls within the next six weeks, according to a news release.

"They can come in on the professional end and then offer some guidance," said Jeffery Wilson, chairman of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center board of directors. "Was there a discrepancy, how much may or may not it have been, and then we can have an understanding of what we're looking at."

The morning after the June 9 Strut, center director Rose Martin told police that someone had broken in and stolen about $88,932 in cash during the night.

Two weeks later, center employee Torrey Hines, 35, admitted taking about $42,400 in cash and vandalizing the inside of the building with racist graffiti to throw off investigators.

Hines returned $39,921 when he confessed to police but insisted to officers and community leaders that he did not take the amount that Martin said was missing. City Councilman Moses Freeman backed Hines' story.

Charges against Hines have been sent to a grand jury, but police and center officials appear to have made little headway in finding out what Hines did with the rest of the money, if he indeed took more than he admitted to taking.

Martin has repeatedly declined to talk about the issue and deferred comment to Wilson on Friday.

"We know what we got back," Wilson said, "and we want to bring [the auditors] in to look at the procedures and the process and give some direction."

Freeman said he still supports Hines but hopes the audit will bring assurance to the community that the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is an accountable organization.

"That's the right direction to go in," Freeman said of the audit. "And I appreciate their diligence to correct that problem and any related problem, because we would like to continue to see them be the sponsor and the host of the Bessie Smith Strut and other festival activities that may come to the M.L. King neighborhood and business district."

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