Edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource

The leadership at New York City’s Gotham Chamber Opera is blaming its former managing director, David Bennett, who has since been hired at the San Diego Opera, for the demise of the 15-year-old company.

According to Gotham staff and a board member, a cache of unpaid bills, invoices and fines totaling $600,000 were never put on the books or reported to the board, and were discovered after Bennett left for San Diego last spring. The Gotham’s annual budget was $1.8 million, according to the company’s most recent tax filings.

“There was one person who had full access to the books. One person. And it was the responsibility of that person to input all of these invoices,” said Edward Barnes, the current executive director at Gotham. He was hired to replace Bennett in May.

An undated portrait shows Edward Barnes, the executive director of Gotham Chamber Opera in New York City. The company is shutting down at the end of the month.

That one person, according to Barnes, was Bennett, the new hope for the San Diego Opera, a company that had just emerged from its own near shutdown. Today, the San Diego Opera is stable.

Bennett would not talk to KPBS for this story, but he provided a written statement. In it he says the Gotham board had “finally grasped a reality that I and the dedicated shoestring staff of three employees faced every day: The company’s financial condition was more perilous than they had fully understood.”

This kind of news could send shivers down the spines of San Diego Opera’s board members. It’s been less than two years since they faced their own possible shutdown.

San Diego Opera board president Carol Lazier declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement that the board stands behind Bennett 100 percent.

“The board has worked hard to ensure that good governance and strong internal financial controls are in place, which enable us to benefit from and support David Bennett’s strong, creative leadership,” she wrote.

The San Diego Opera has a chief operating officer who runs the company in tandem with Bennett. There is also a chief financial officer on staff.

Bennett helped lead the innovative Gotham Chamber Opera for almost nine years. San Diego Opera hired him after a nationwide search to replace Ian Campbell, the longtime executive and artistic director who tried to shut down the San Diego Opera in 2014.

The Gotham made its mark staging lesser-known operas in unusual locations, like the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and a New York burlesque club.

“The productions were of the highest quality, beautifully designed and very well cast,” said James Jorden, an opera critic for the New York Observer and editor of the opera blog Parterre, which has an opera gossip section. “I was absolutely stunned to hear the news,” said Jorden by phone from New York.

When Barnes was hired to replace Bennett as executive director in May, the board presented him with financial reports showing a debt of about $100,000. But the projected budget looked good, so Barnes decided they could pay off the debt and he took the job.

“I quickly began to realize there were way more bills that were not on the books,” said Barnes, in an interview from the Gotham Chamber Opera office in New York. The office will close Oct. 31.

Barnes began investigating and asked staff members to reach out to past vendors to see if there were other outstanding bills.

“I was also flooded with emails and phone calls from people asking where their money was,” said Barnes. “This was from unions, artists, vendors and photographers.” Some cases had already been sent to collection agencies.

By July, Barnes said he had discovered $600,000 of unpaid bills that were never logged in the company’s accounting system or financial reporting. Some invoices were stuffed in a folder. The workers compensation insurance premiums hadn’t been paid for nine months, so New York state fined Gotham $30,000, according to Barnes.

A 2014 audit was underway but had to be delayed because the auditor did not have the necessary information, said Barnes. A draft of the audit has been completed, and a Gotham spokesperson said it will be available soon.

“It was frightening and it was stressful,” said Barnes.

An undated portrait shows Johnnie Moore Hawkins, vice-president of the Gotham Chamber Opera board.

The board’s vice president, Johnnie Moore Hawkins, said when the directors learned of the $600,000 in unpaid bills, they were shocked. The unpaid bills weren’t on reports to the board, he said. They never questioned the financials because they had faith in Bennett.

“There’s a certain amount of trust that one experiences over eight years of working with someone and there was no way of knowing things that were being done that went unreported,” said Hawkins.

In Bennett’s statement, he refers to the financial instability of the Gotham. “Gotham Chamber Opera existed on a razor’s edge for years, and on that edge we created some truly amazing things.” Tax filings for 2013, the most recent available online, indicate that Bennett took a 10 percent cut in salary.

Asked to clarify the salary cut, a San Diego Opera spokesperson said in an email: “It was his recommendation and the board approved it.”

Because of the newly discovered debt, the Gotham Chamber Opera is shutting down. Bankruptcy is an option.

“We tried to keep this very private. But when it became clear that we had to go out of business, we just had to say why,” said Barnes.

When asked what he thought of Bennett’s leadership, Hawkins, who is a founding board member at Gotham, replied: “David Bennett is a remarkably charming and engaging person and he cares deeply about opera. I am absolutely sure that he did everything he did with the best of intentions.”

As for Barnes, he started the summer excited about his new job. “This seemed like a fantastic move for me,” said the theater veteran. “I was very excited by it. So I am very, very sad. I’ll be unemployed at the end of the month.”

Angela Carone | KPBS

Angela Carone covers arts and culture for KPBS. Angela has degrees in political science from Pennsylvania State University and in English literature from Georgia State University. She is also a published photographer.