More Details Emerge on Coaches’ Alleged Kickback Scheme

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A Capistrano Unified School District investigation into an alleged kickback scheme concluded that several high school football coaches likely engaged in bribery, embezzlement, theft and fraud, according to the woman who first reported their actions to authorities.

The investigation identified both state and federal laws believed to have been broken in the alleged scheme with Laguna Hills-based Lapes Athletic Team Sales, says Teresa Sando, an owner of the now-defunct company.

Meanwhile, the attorney for former San Clemente head football coach Eric Patton, one of three coaches who were fired this week by the district because of their alleged involvement in the scheme, says Patton’s actions were legitimate and accused the district’s investigator of being incompetent.

On Monday, the Capistrano Unified board voted unanimously to fire the coaches, identified by those close to the situation as Patton, Capistrano Valley’s Chi Chi Biehn, and Dana Hills’ Brent Melbon.

Sando and her husband Geoff Sando bought the company in 2008 from Bill Lapes. The couple says that as they were going through the company’s records they found an extensive set of duplicate accounts — referred to in company records as “slush” — that were created for coaches at as many as 60 high schools and colleges throughout Southern California.

A portion and sometimes the full amount of many orders were diverted into the slush or “promo” accounts, and some coaches would file false or “dummy” invoices to their districts, Sando said.

In several cases, the company used the slush funds to write checks worth hundreds of dollars directly to coaches and their family members, according to the documents. In other instances, products that appear to be for personal use were purchased using the funds.

PBS SoCal and Voice of OC first reported on the Sandos’ findings in May. The district’s investigation was completed two months ago, Sando said. Her comments mark the first public details of its findings.

The district and its investigator declined to comment on the investigation’s conclusions. A copy of the final report was sent to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which also declined to explain its contents.

Sando says the district’s private investigator, former FBI agent Bob Price of ESI International, determined that athletic employees likely violated laws on embezzlement of public funds, bribery, grand theft, fraudulent representation and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Sando has been working with investigators at several Southern California school districts, including Capistrano Unified, by providing and explaining internal company records related to the alleged scheme.

Patton’s lawyer, however, says that the money was used to fund equipment for students who couldn’t afford it and that booster clubs and school officials understood that a profit margin was built into the cost for this purpose.

“All monies paid to Dr. Patton’s family member were for legitimate reimbursement and/or for services rendered to the [San Clemente High School football] program,” attorney Eric Hansen wrote in a recent letter to the Capistrano Unified board.

Hansen went on to describe Price, the district’s investigator, as “an incompetent, belligerent zealot” whose approach to this case “is consistent with the other sham investigations” he’s undertaken.

The investigator’s report is “so inexcusably inaccurate, embarrassingly ludicrous and undeniably a sham, it brings new meaning to the phrase ‘You got to see it to believe it,’ ” Hansen wrote.

But, Sando said, several witnesses confirmed to the investigator that coaches were aware of false paperwork being filed with the district and knew about the off-books accounts.

The Sheriff’s Department would not discuss its criminal investigation or an estimated conclusion date, other than to say the case is ongoing.

“We’re still moving forward with it,” said Lt. Chris Cormier.

Sando, however, said the Sheriff’s Department is moving far too slowly, given that she first notified the agency about the slush funds and payments to coaches in August 2008, she said.

Patton’s attorney, meanwhile, insists his client acted lawfully.

“Without question, Dr. Patton will be able to provide irrefutable evidence that all monies paid to family members were authorized and appropriate,” Hansen wrote in his letter.

Patton’s attorney declined to comment when reached Thursday evening, and attempts to reach Biehn and Melbon were unsuccessful.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/nicholasgerda.

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