Parents knew something was wrong when the thousands of dollars they collected for the high school baseball team seemingly vaporized.
One by one, coaches and school administrators at Woodbridge High in Irvine began to suspect over the past school year that something was very wrong with the finances of the school's booster club. Profits from fund-raisers had withered, checks had bounced and part-time coaches had gone unpaid.
The athletic director learned that weight room equipment worth $5,213 had never been paid for and that a $10,000 booster club check that was supposed to have covered salaries for summer camp coaches had bounced. The football coach noticed that snack bar receipts had dropped nearly 70%. The baseball coach said profits from selling ads on the outfield walls of the baseball stadium had tumbled from $8,800 to $838 in just one season.
Meanwhile, parents of a summer-league baseball team in Irvine, to which some of the same high school players belonged, found out that their entire $8,000 operating budget had disappeared. The money was to cover everything from uniforms to travel expenses for a Hawaii tournament.
Suspicious, the parents and coaches went to police, who have not made an arrest but say they have a suspect. It could be weeks before police finish auditing the organizations' books, said Irvine Police Lt. Sam Allevato.
At the start of a new school year, parents, coaches and administrators at the Irvine campus said the experience has left them angry, frustrated and resolved to keep a tighter grip on booster club finances.
"In athletics and booster clubs, we look for the good," said Ken Bailey, the school's vice principal. "Most volunteers want that too. That's the essence of why people get involved. Sometimes when it goes the other way, we can't believe it. That's the hurt of it."
Parents and school officials in Irvine aren't the first to feel that hurt. Police have investigated numerous high school or youth booster programs in past years, tipped off that money for equipment, uniforms or even salaries was being misused.
In Fountain Valley, the former boys' soccer booster club president and area director of the American Youth Soccer Organization was charged with stealing more than $50,000 from the two groups. Gary Nakano, who has pleaded not guilty, has a pretrial hearing set for Friday.
In Rancho Santa Margarita, George Gutierrez, the founder and former president of a youth football league, was sentenced to seven months in jail and ordered to repay more than $86,000 he stole from the league. Gutierrez admitted he cashed at least 79 checks from the Santa Margarita-Trabuco Canyon Pop Warner League, tapping money meant to buy equipment.
In Ventura County, the treasurer of a booster club that raised money for Newbury Park high School's music program was arrested on suspicion of stealing nearly $44,000 intended for the marching band.
Investing time and money in youth and school booster clubs is where volunteerism and blind faith often meet.
Booster clubs can be unsung heroes in the success of a high school athletic program. Well-organized and well-funded clubs offer their teams an edge by paying for things many schools can't afford, such as batting cages or the best weight room equipment.
Members work weekends and nights, hawking programs or selling hot dogs and popcorn at stadium snack bars. They don't get paid, yet they watch over thousands of dollars in donations.
Unlike associated student groups and parent-teacher associations, booster clubs and youth sports teams are not subject to any regulatory agency. They are not controlled by the school board. Even the coaches, whose teams depend on these groups, don't usually check the books.
Team Officials Now See Need for Oversight
In Irvine, the continuing investigation has been sobering experience for those involved.
"There was a lot of trust there," said Larry Michaels, a businessman and co-founder of the Thundercats, the Irvine summer league team that had raised money to compete in Hawaii.
"But, looking back, you need a couple sets of eyes all the time to remove the temptation. It's standard operating procedure in any business," Michaels said. Team officials said the team has since recovered about $4,950 of the money it raised but is still out $3,050.
Those associated with the Woodbridge booster club and the Thundercats agreed that it is easy in a volunteer group, especially when children are the common denominator, to lose sight of business principles.
Alan Dugard, athletic director at Woodbridge High, said standard accounting procedures were not always followed with the booster club.
"Originally, two people had to sign each check," Dugard said. "But I think our system just got rather jaundiced after awhile."
It was a wake-up call, he said, when he received the unpaid bill for the weight equipment last year, which carried months of late charges. The booster club had supposedly purchased the equipment for the school.