In cities across the U.S., allegations of financial misconduct divide youth sports clubs and communities

In cities across the U.S., allegations of financial misconduct divide non-profit clubs and communities

With more than 2,000 registered players at times and an annual operating budgets of around $1 million, the Bend FC Timbers has been one of the largest soccer clubs in the Pacific Northwest for several years.
With greater than 2,000 registered gamers now and then and an annual running budgets of round $1 million, the Bend FC Timbers has been one of the biggest football clubs in the Pacific Northwest for a number of years. (Isaac Wasserman for The Washington Post)

BEND, Ore. — Tara Bilanski used to be already a family call in the Pacific Northwest football scene when she used to be named government director of the Bend FC Timbers in 2016. A former skilled participant who had coached at the best possible ranges collegiately, she discovered a extra profitable alternative in the well-financed global of youth football. Her credentials energized one of the state’s biggest clubs, and over the subsequent 5 years, she won a number of pay raises that at last bumped her wage as much as $119,000 in step with 12 months — just about $30,000 greater than she made as a head trainer at the University of Oregon.

But by means of the summer time of 2021, Bilanski had fallen out of want with the membership’s board of administrators and many of its folks, and after stakeholders performed a survey and made up our minds she had now not been appearing her task tasks satisfactorily, she used to be fired that August. Within months, any other bombshell dropped: The membership studied Bilanski’s books and couldn’t account for greater than $80,000. The perpetrator, they made up our minds, used to be Bilanski and any other former Timbers worker.

In brief order, the embezzlement allegations brought about a lawsuit that has divided a once-unified football neighborhood and introduced investigations by means of the native district legal professional’s workplace and the state’s Justice Department.

Bilanski has now not denied taking the cash however says it used to be section of a profit-sharing settlement with the membership. As courts type the fact, the ongoing case serves as a high-profile instance of what many youth sports organizations will have to take care of. Youth sports lately have exploded right into a $19 billion undertaking, by means of some accounts, however their ecosystem is constructed on a shaky basis of nonprofit clubs, many run by means of volunteers. They function as large companies however have sloppy accounting and murky financial oversight.

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Clubs across many sports, together with football, basketball and volleyball, rake in masses of 1000’s of bucks in step with 12 months from registration charges, fundraisers, personal coaching and camps, however assessments and balances on the waft of that cash are steadily absent. As the trade continues to develop, many clubs in finding themselves prone, and embezzlement scandals have fractured organizations and communities across the nation — a youth basketball membership in Omaha; a wrestling membership in Mt. Morris, Mich.; and a football and lacrosse membership Hanover, Pa.

In Bend, an idyllic former mill the town nestled in the shadow of the Cascade Mountain vary and referred to as a playground for out of doors fanatics, the football membership has historically been a pillar of the neighborhood, a rallying level for neighbors who sip espresso in combination on the sidelines and arrange carpools to after-school practices. The Bend FC Timbers have counted greater than 2,000 youth gamers amongst their ranks, many that pay up to $1,600 in annual dues. The nonprofit group reported greater than $1.1 million in earnings in 2019 on my own, consistent with the most up-to-date tax data to be had.

The scandal has rocked Bend’s tightknit football neighborhood and has expanded past the accusation of embezzlement. Bilanski and a number of former Timbers team of workers contributors also are accused in a lawsuit of stealing the membership’s industry secrets and techniques on their approach out the door, consistent with courtroom paperwork, changing data and moving confidential non-public knowledge of 1000’s of gamers, together with touch knowledge, addresses and, in some circumstances, Social Security numbers whilst forming their very own rival membership on the town.

A handful of coaches and kind of 120 gamers from the Timbers left remaining 12 months to sign up for Bilanski’s new group, Apex Futbol Club, cleaving the the town’s football neighborhood in part. Both clubs are looking to transfer ahead, however emotions are nonetheless uncooked. The ongoing case finds the complexities of working a youth sports group: Leaders engaged in bickering, name-calling and political maneuvering, all the whilst leaving children in the crossfire or, in some circumstances, altogether forgotten.

“Was Bend Timbers, before the split, run as a business with integrity or not? That is what the lawyers are paid to figure out,” mentioned Michael Gassner, a Bend resident who has one kid taking part in for the Timbers and any other for Apex. “And the kids are caught in the middle of it.”

Rising pressure, indignant texts

On a dismal afternoon remaining November, just about 3 months after she have been fired by means of the Timbers, Bilanski met with a paralegal from the legislation company suing her in a Starbucks parking zone off Highway 97 in Bend. She passed over her Timbers-issued computer. Bilanski had coached the University of Oregon’s ladies’s program for 8 years, leaving as the college’s all-time winningest trainer. As the government director of the Timbers, she wore many hats — she served as a trainer, treated financial oversight and directed human sources, serving to develop the Timbers right into a membership that nowadays options two full-time workers, 5 part-time workers, 20 paid coaches and 10 volunteers on the board of administrators.

The computer used to be despatched to a knowledge forensics examiner in Portland. According to the Timbers’ board of administrators, the computer contained proof of financial impropriety; Bilanski had allegedly directed a number of unauthorized bills totaling $80,684 to herself over a six-year length and, in flip, had paid a portion of the finances to any other former Timbers worker, Jen Davin.

According to courtroom data, neither Bilanski nor Davin received approval from the Timbers’ board to stay the ones finances and they tried to hide the transactions by means of allegedly representing their paintings working the Timbers-owned summer time camps as “a profit-sharing agreement” that will pay Bilanski and Davin a kickback of 85 p.c of the camp earnings.

Bilanski and Davin declined to remark for this tale via their lawyers. In a deposition with lawyers for the Timbers, Bilanski invoked her Fifth Amendment proper greater than 340 occasions.

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Bilanski, 49, nonetheless has lots of neighborhood reinforce, and this previous summer time she filed a defamation swimsuit in opposition to the Timbers, in the hunt for $5.1 million from the membership and former board president Michelle Hart. Bilanski and the different defendants in the case have sought a keep in the civil case.

“In growing numbers, more and more families are realizing [Bilanski’s] credentials. … I think people have stood by her and feel very strongly in support of her,” mentioned Paige Hunt, a Bend resident whose son, Jake, left the Timbers to play for Apex remaining 12 months. “It’s not making sense to us.”

The biggest youth football membership in central Oregon, the Timbers date again a number of many years as a casual native membership and formally was an included group in 2005. The membership is an associate underneath the Portland Timbers Major League Soccer crew and the Portland Thorns National Women’s Soccer League crew. With kind of 30 groups competing for the membership, the Bend summer time camps was a significant draw underneath Bilanski, who charged round $150 in access charges for the camps.

Ryan Shore, the board president who employed Bilanski as the Timbers’ technical director in 2013, mentioned in an interview that the membership had outsourced corporations to run camps for years. Bilanski’s preliminary contract — which ran for 12 months — integrated earnings for working camps for the Timbers, mentioned Shore, who left the board sooner than Bilanski used to be promoted to government director.

“If Tara or her directors and coaches wanted to run camps, they could have that profit line or moneys we usually spent to hire [outside companies]. So, yes, it was in her contract,” Shore mentioned. “We had those kind of increases and moneymaking abilities to draw her as a new hire.” Shore mentioned he used to be now not conversant in Bilanski’s more moderen employment contracts with the Timbers.

Even sooner than the allegations of embezzlement got here to gentle, the lawsuit contends, Bilanski and a bunch of Timbers workers and crew managers launched into a marketing campaign to undermine the group, which used to be born out of pressure with the board and its president, Hart.

“If [the Bend Timbers’ board doesn’t] give up we will start a new club, take a crap ton of kids and bankrupt them,” the former Timbers treasurer wrote in a textual content that used to be integrated in courtroom filings.

In June, whilst nonetheless hired by means of the Timbers, one of the membership’s coaches, John O’Sullivan, allegedly started circulating an in depth plan to shape a rival membership. “F— these guys,” he wrote in a textual content message cited in courtroom data. “I am so angry I want to stick it to these f—ers.” O’Sullivan’s legal professional didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Attorneys for the Timbers declare in filings that the membership’s administrator even labored as a “double agent” to care for get entry to to the membership’s laptop techniques and lend a hand the workforce delete, proportion and edit paperwork with the intention to shape a brand new membership.

Bilanski and a number of former workers downloaded over 7,000 paperwork and edited, shared or deleted masses of paperwork from the Timbers’ Google Workspace IT techniques in the 11 days after Bilanski used to be fired, consistent with the lawsuit; when the administrator advised Davin she used to be eliminating positive information, Davin allegedly spoke back: “Delete f—ing away.”

In overdue August, days after Bilanski have been fired, the administrator allegedly discovered that the Timbers’ Google Drive used to be recording a log of all process.

“Dude,” she texted to Bilanski, consistent with courtroom data. “The s— that I can see on the google admin is crazy. … We are all screwed as there is evidence of any file deletion or transfer. … But I also will not give them full admin access for a long long time.”

“Dang. Good to know,” Bilanski spoke back.

By remaining fall, as Bilanski and the workforce of Timbers staffers and coaches had been hit with the lawsuit, they peeled off to begin Apex, drawing reinforce from dozens of folks who believed they’d been wronged by means of the Timbers’ board. The rift in Bend’s football scene used to be simply starting.

The lawsuit comprises texts between Bilanski and Davin that mocked co-workers and additionally integrated vitriol for Hart, who served on the volunteer board for 3 years and whose 15-year-old son, Ethan Wheeler, is a emerging superstar inside of the Timbers program. When Hart commented on a social media put up in 2021, Bilanski texted to Davin that Hart and her son can be “black listed,” consistent with the lawsuit.

At next practices, Wheeler may just listen his teammates whisper that he didn’t need to be on the crew as a result of his mom used to be on the board, he mentioned in an interview. O’Sullivan took him and his father off an electronic mail listing for tournaments, he mentioned, and all however 4 of his teammates migrated to Apex.

“It was kind of sad,” Wheeler mentioned. “I lost most of my friends I had been playing with since kindergarten. They just left.”

Bend isn’t the most effective neighborhood to combat with accusations of embezzlement inside of its youth sports ranks lately. In the previous few months on my own, stories of alleged financial misconduct and convictions of embezzlement had been reported across the nation, underscoring a long-standing factor inside of the trade.

In Nebraska, the founder of the standard Omaha Sports Academy used to be accused of taking greater than $400,000 remaining 12 months and used to be sentenced to probation after pleading no contest to the fees this previous summer time.

In Wisconsin, a former treasurer used to be charged with embezzling greater than $84,000 from a basketball membership over a seven-year span, allegedly spending greater than $73,000 on retail pieces, foods at eating places, airline tickets and cell phone expenses.

In Michigan, an worker of a Flint-area wrestling membership set the group again after being accused of stealing greater than $20,000.

In Virginia, an Ashburn lady pleaded responsible in January to stealing an unspecified quantity of cash from McLean Youth Football — the group dissolved at the time of the scheme in 2016 — the usage of finances for foods at eating places, visits to a spa and puppy care.

He used to be 34 when he used to be recognized with ALS. He wasn’t going to forestall main the basketball crew he beloved.

While it’s not possible to understand whether or not embezzlement is on the upward push in youth sports — there is not any centralized frame monitoring circumstances in the trade — it’s been a pervasive downside for years, mentioned Erik Carrozza, who served for greater than a decade as a youth sports treasurer in suburban Philadelphia and began a nonprofit referred to as the Center for Fraud Prevention to lend a hand organizations steer clear of embezzlement.

Carrozza has tracked and tested masses of circumstances of youth sports embezzlement totaling thousands and thousands of bucks stolen in the United States and out of the country lately.

“There’s one common theme in all of these cases,” he mentioned. “Everyone is shocked when it happens because they trust who is handling the money.”

There’s steadily no governance of youth sports organizations — now not from folks, sponsors or native governments — and maximum embezzlement circumstances contain treasurers or volunteer board contributors who’ve been depended on with a company’s finances, with little to no assessments and balances on how budgets are operated.

“The [youth sports] organization’s financial maturity is not relative to the dollars flowing through them. It’s a function of the growth of the industry,” Carrozza mentioned. “But it’s also a function of volunteer-based organizations and a combination of the general lack of oversight and governance that these organizations are subject to.”

There had been laborious courses discovered in Hanover, Pa., when a former treasurer stole just about $630,000 from Hanover Soccer Club and the South Western Youth Lacrosse group over a six-year length. The treasurer, David W. Wells, pleaded responsible to fees of robbery in 2018 and won probation.

Tim Swingler, the former president of the membership, mentioned Wells used to be a depended on volunteer who by no means introduced precise financial institution statements to board conferences, as a substitute representing the membership’s spending via his personal accounting. The Hanover Soccer Club stayed afloat however used to be set again years in its plans to broaden a capital mission for brand spanking new fields.

“That’s what was really the lesson learned is that you can’t trust one guy with the keys to the kingdom,” Swingler mentioned.

On a sun-soaked Saturday afternoon in September, masses of folks covered the sidelines to observe their children play at the Timbers’ turf fields at Pine Nursery Park, a 159-acre complicated lush with towering pines, sage and ponds. Wayne Price saved an in depth eye on the motion, taking a couple of of the 20 or so calls he receives on a daily basis as the new director of the Timbers. He ultimately raced to his black pickup and headed to observe his son play for Summit, one of the native excessive colleges the place Timbers and Apex membership gamers have come in combination to play for the fall.

A former skilled participant from a working-class group in South Wales who by no means needed to pay to play sports rising up, Price, 42, is in some ways the perfect alternative for the Timbers throughout this turbulent time — an intruder without a neighborhood ties and little style for politics. He had by no means heard of Bend sooner than making use of for the task, which drew greater than 200 candidates after Bilanski used to be fired. After 13 years training in the New Jersey youth membership scene, he grew cautious there as a result of a lot of the trade in that state is transferring to a for-profit style.

“I saw that youth sports had become such a massive industry. It wasn’t soccer first,” he mentioned. “This has put me back in an environment where I can really affect what is going on out there on the green.”

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There is lots of paintings to do off it. While attorneys for the Timbers contend that the embezzlement case has jeopardized the group’s standing as a tax-exempt nonprofit, the membership continues to be dealing with substantial debt to construct new fields — kind of $760,000, consistent with the membership’s newest e-newsletter despatched out to oldsters in September.

“It’s draining the club,” mentioned Andy Fecteau, a Bend bodily therapist whose 3 youngsters competed for the Timbers and whose circle of relatives was once shut with Bilanski. “If she did indeed pocket the money … God, that’s so wrong on so many levels. There’s got to be some corrective damage done for someone doing that stuff, especially because it’s kids.”

Price additionally has been compelled to navigate the drama of the court cases; whilst the board has stuffed him in on the lawsuits, he infrequently brings the case up.

“I thought, it’s probably easier to go in somewhere that’s been struggling or has gone through a period of turmoil and fix it than to go to a well-oiled machine,” he mentioned. “I think the [board] has done a great job of shielding the people who are trying to rebuild. … It should be about the community, right?”

Some households have children taking part in for each clubs, together with Gassner, who let his daughter, a senior in highschool, make her personal determination to depart for Apex remaining 12 months. He warned her of the ongoing court cases however opted not to intrude along with her selection. His eighth-grade son selected to stay with the Timbers.

“It tore the community apart,” he mentioned. “There were all kinds of mudslinging that tore people apart.”

The fracture can particularly be felt throughout the public-school season in the fall, when gamers from each clubs are compelled to compete facet by means of facet — and folks will have to sit down subsequent to each other in the stands.

“I think it’s really shattered a lot of longtime parental relationships. … We kept coaching our son the whole time. This is just parent-adult stuff — you guys just go play,” mentioned Hunt, the mum or dad whose son now performs for Apex. “I hear from parents, you know, severed relationships of a decade or more. No eye contact at games. Very little interaction. We try to force the issue and say hello, smile and say thank you for team dinners and such. But there’s that divide.”

After maximum of his crew left for Apex, Ethan Wheeler started using his motorbike on a daily basis to his college, Summit High, to apply. He sought after to turn out that he wasn’t creating a mistake by means of staying with the Timbers. His diligence has paid off this autumn: He made Summit’s varsity crew as a sophomore.

The pressure is continuously bobbing up in dialog, however the Wheeler circle of relatives has all for Ethan’s long term. His father, Derrick, took over as crew supervisor of the Timbers when maximum of the boys left remaining 12 months, and after that first apply by which most effective 5 gamers took the box — “That was devastating,” Derrick mentioned — the membership used to be in a position to fill the roster with recruits from Bend and different within reach cities.

“It’s just been a lot of conversations, a lot of occupying mental space, just trying to keep everything going,” Derrick mentioned.

Ethan mentioned he’s having the most exciting taking part in football since becoming a member of the membership six years in the past.

But there are nonetheless lots of reminders of the cut up. Sometimes Wheeler will see his previous pals in school and gained’t know what to mention. Sometimes he performs video video games on-line together with his former teammates and they’ll inform him he must come play for Apex. “I get so annoyed by that and just leave,” he mentioned.

His house has additionally been focused as a result of his mom is the former board president, consistent with courtroom data. A surveillance digicam arrange in entrance of the circle of relatives’s space captured any individual using by means of and yelling, “F— you!”

“It’s affected us,” Ethan mentioned. “Most kids were forced to have to choose, which is kind of sad. It should have never been a choice.”

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