Boy Scout volunteer Tom Willis knew something was wrong when he saw that 20 youngsters on the list for a scouting program all had the same last name: Doe.
Willis said it appeared someone was listing fake members to boost enrollment, perhaps to bring in more funding from agencies like the United Way or to make paid Boy Scout recruiters look better.
“It was just so blatant. They didn’t even try to make up names,” said Willis, a dentist from Decatur and a former Eagle Scout who serves on the board of the Greater Alabama Boy Scout Council, which runs scouting programs in northeastern Alabama.
Now the FBI is investigating whether the council padded its membership rolls. It is just the latest investigation around the country into whether the Boy Scouts have inflated their numbers.
The FBI refused to comment. The council said on its Web site early this month that Scout officials were cooperating with investigators and conducting an internal audit.
“Let me assure you that your executive committee considers these allegations to be very serious and is taking necessary and appropriate action,” said council board chairman Randy Haines, a banking executive.
Greg Shields, a spokesman at the Boy Scouts’ national office in Irving, Texas, said the organization has numerous policies meant to ensure the accuracy of its membership rolls, and is “dedicated to the accurate reporting of membership.”
Yet longtime scout volunteer Larry Cox said he got used to seeing paperwork from council headquarters in Birmingham that listed the names of youngsters who had dropped out of scouting or had never been part of the organization.
The problem, Cox said, is with a few people at the council office, not the volunteers who lead activities such as camping trips and Pinewood Derby car races.
“They always said it was because our paperwork had problems, but we knew it wasn’t,” Cox said. “It seemed to be very broad.”
The Greater Alabama Council has a strong reputation nationally. In 2002, it received an award for a program that used fishing to bring in new members. The council claimed 10,000 new Scouts that year, and tax forms show it had revenue of $6.5 million, including $100,709 in government grants. In a United Way funding application, the group said it served almost 120,000 youths and adults in 2003.
“I would say the numbers are probably inflated 30 to 40 percent in our council,” Willis said.
Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed the Boy Scouts’ grant applications, audits and tax forms from 1999 through last year from the United Way of Central Alabama.
The council received millions of dollars from United Way chapters during the six-year period, and is slated to get around $1 million this year.
The probe has shaken the United Way. Central Alabama spokeswoman Samuetta Nesbitt said the United Way does not have the resources to verify all the information submitted by every group that applies for funding.
Nationally, the Boy Scouts claim 1.2 million adult leaders and 3.2 million youth members in six programs, including the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts.
Suspicions have led to investigations elsewhere. In Texas, a Scout group removed thousands of names from its membership rolls and a federal grand jury two years ago looked into the matter. No charges were filed.
In Atlanta, independent auditors are investigating claims the metropolitan area’s Boy Scouts inflated black membership numbers to 20,000 to gain more donations. A civil rights leader contends there are no more than 500 blacks actively involved.
Cox said the idea that someone would overstate membership goes against what the Boy Scouts are supposed to stand for: “Being trustworthy and having integrity is one of the prime points of the Scouting oath.”