Turmoil at St. Paul’s historic Cafesjian’s Carousel — including a fired director and a police investigation into possible embezzlement — has led to a shortage of volunteers this year at the popular attraction in Como Park.
The 104-year-old carousel continues to operate its normal summer hours at the park, but officials said many volunteers departed after siding with the ousted director, Colleen Murphy Roth, who was fired last fall by the board of Our Fair Carousel, the nonprofit organization that owns and runs the merry-go-round. (Its land and building at Como Park are owned by the city of St. Paul.)
The carousel was dramatically saved at the last minute in 1988 by a local citizens group, just before the individual horses were to be auctioned in New York.
Director let go last fall
Roth was hired as director in 2015 and ran the carousel for three summers before board members let her go last fall, saying they were uncomfortable with her management style and a lack of transparency.
Our Fair Carousel Board Vice President Lorraine Kenfield said: “In my observation, out-of-line autocratic conduct, a differing regarding vision and practices and disparaging rhetoric about the OFC Board of Directors which resulted in a polarization between volunteers and the Board were among the factors contributing to the former Executive Director’s termination.”
After the firing, board members began reconstructing financial information and discovered what they believed to be missing documents and property, along with unusual credit card transactions. They notified the St. Paul Police Department, which opened the investigation into what they call an “embezzlement complaint.” St. Paul Police Information Officer Steve Linders said this week that the investigation is ongoing.
Roth did not respond to a request for an interview, but her attorney, Sarah Crippen, sent MinnPost this response:
“Our Fair Carousel unfairly terminated Colleen without notice and has breached an agreement to pay her severance. We also believe that representatives of OFC have defamed Colleen repeatedly, both before and after her termination, including by apparently making allegations to the police that OFC knows not to be true. Colleen was not notified of OFC’s criminal allegations until April of this year, despite the charges apparently being filed late last year. OFC has had information that disproves its allegations for many months, but persists in spreading defamatory information about her to the police and to the community. Please do not have any further direct contact with Colleen; you can direct any further inquiries to me. Thank you.”
Michelle Furrer, who manages Como Park for the city parks department and is a member of the carousel foundation board, said she couldn’t speak about Roth’s firing because it is a personnel matter. “Information has been turned over to the police; that’s all I can say,” she said.
Carousel ‘isn’t missing a beat’
Furrer said the carousel “isn’t missing a beat” this season and traffic has been good in the park. “We can always use more volunteers, but we’re able to open every day.”
But a large contingent of former volunteers left when Roth was fired and no longer work as cashiers and attendants at the carousel.
Kenfield said in past years they’ve had 90 to 100 volunteers each season, but so far this year, there are only 45. Five people work each shift, with two shifts per day. She said volunteers were lost this season “due to their loyalty to the executive director who was terminated last October.”
(Anyone interested in volunteering at the carousel can contact officials at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The carousel was built in 1914 and operated at the Minnesota State Fair for 75 years. In the late 1980s, though, the owners decided to cash in on a fashion trend that featured wooden carousel horses as high-end decorations. They dismantled the carousel and planned to sell the horses, piece by piece, at auction.
Peter Boehm and Nancy Peterson, a St. Paul couple with an interest in carousels, formed a group to raise $1.1 million to buy the entire carousel before the gavel dropped in New York City. Contributions ranged from coins from school children to $600,000 from former West Publishing executive Gerard Cafesjian. The carousel is named for him.
Extensive renovation and reopening
After extensive renovation of the mechanism and restoration of the original 68 wooden hand-carved horses and two chariots, it reopened in downtown St. Paul, then in 2000 moved to its current location in Como Park.
Boehm and Peterson led the carousel’s nonprofit foundation until they retired in 2016. At the time, they said wanted to make way for new leadership. But contacted this week, Boehm said the decision to leave was driven largely by Roth’s “carelessness and incompetence.”
Boehm said: “At the time, I did not think there was theft or embezzlement, just carelessness and incompetence. But the rest of the board insisted on giving her more time to feel her way. I resigned because I knew I would be asked to certify the annual audit and sign the tax return, neither of which I was prepared to do, because financial documents had been withheld from me [by Roth].”
He said: “For 28 years we’d had tight financial controls, but suddenly we couldn’t find receipts for thousands of dollars in credit card expenditures.”
After Roth’s dismissal, board members working to clear up financial records found what appeared to be unauthorized credit card payments, including an unauthorized airline flight, dog grooming and restaurant meals.
As noted in her attorney’s statement, Roth has denied any impropriety.
Gerard Cafesjian has died, but his family foundation has a strong ongoing stake in the carousel foundation, including several seats on the board. Officials of the Cafesjian foundation did not respond to requests for an interview.
Cafesjian, himself, faced a huge embezzlement scandal years ago when a top lieutenant was found guilty of stealing $4 million from him over many years. John Joseph Waters Jr. was sentenced in 2014 to nine years in prison for the crime.