Preakness events chief under probe

June 15, 1995|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

The executive director of last month's Preakness celebration is under investigation by the state attorney general after being suspended by her board for mishandling Preakness Week events and racking up a $1 million deficit.

Donna Leonard, who joined Preakness Celebration Inc. almost two years ago, was suspended without pay June 2 by the organization's board of directors. She informed the co-chairmen of the board of the projected deficit in a May 22 memo.

The board is to meet today to decide what further action to take.

"[Ms. Leonard] has been suspended," said Barry Scher, a vice president with Giant Foods and co-president of the Preakness Celebration board. "She's been suspended because in her own words, due to a lack of judgment on her part, we have a tremendous deficit this year."

Mr. Scher said he met with state Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III Tuesday and asked him to investigate.

"We have given them a lot of data, written information as well as verbal, from our vendors, board members and staff, and they're being asked by the board to look into the situation," he added.

Preakness Celebration Inc. was founded seven years ago to sponsor and coordinate a week of festivals, concerts and other events leading to the running of the Preakness Stakes each May. This year's events had poor turnouts.

Ms. Leonard said last night that she shared some responsibility for the deficit. "As executive director of the organization, I have no choice but to take responsibility," she said. "But the board also shared some for not raising sufficient funds" from corporate sponsors.

Her responsibility for the 1995 Preakness Celebration, Ms. Leonard said, was to create events that would attract national attention. She pointed out that virtually every hotel downtown was filled during Preakness Week and the events were extensively covered in the national media, including the New York Times and USA Today.

"There probably wasn't a state in the country that didn't know about the Preakness celebration," she said. "We achieved a lot of the goals we set out to accomplish. Unfortunately, financially it was not successful."

Neither Mr. Scher nor Mr. Tyler would discuss the extent of the investigation.

"At this point we're just reviewing the information we have to determine what it is," Mr. Tyler said. "I think they came to us because they're very responsible people who were forthcoming when they discovered a problem."

Michael Enright, a spokesman for state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., described the overspending by the Preakness celebration director as totaling "approximately $1 million."

Ms. Leonard was hired away from Advantage International, one of the world's largest sport event marketing firms, where as marketing director she was responsible for promoting events such as the Ladies Professional Golf Association championship and the U.S. Open. When she came to Baltimore in August 1993, she was charged with making the Preakness celebration as large an event as the Kentucky Derby.

In Sun interviews before Preakness '95, Ms. Leonard said that she hoped big names would create a "musical mecca" that would draw tourists from across the United States. The group booked country artist Sammy Kershaw, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and rocker Deborah Harry, among others.

Contributing to the $1 million deficit were slack ticket sales, especially for a two-day jazz festival at Rash Field. When it rained on Sunday, hardly anybody showed up, but the show went on.

"Good management would have dictated either canceling the event or significantly cutting back on the staging and the significant costs of conducting such an event. This was not done," Mr. Scher said.

Mr. Scher said weather wasn't the only problem.

"On Saturday, I was there, but hardly anyone else was. We had chairs set up for thousands and we had a few hundred people there. That was just one example of an event that should have been canceled or significantly curtailed and it wasn't done."

Despite the financial woes, Mr. Scher said there will be a Preakness Celebration in 1996.

"It is our desire to continue with Preakness, albeit in a scaled-back format," he said. "There is a very strong economic impact estimated to be over $24 million on the city and state economy."

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