Federal authorities have charged a high-ranking executive of a former Waltham-based national youth sports business as they investigate whether company officials violated immigration laws by allegedly bringing more than 100 foreign soccer coaches into the United States under the pretense they would work as scouts for professional teams, including the now-defunct Boston Breakers.
Justin Capell, the former chief operating officer of Global Premier Soccer, was charged Friday in US District Court in Boston with conspiracy to commit visa fraud. The charging document cites three other individuals — Global Premier’s former CEO, a former human resources staffer, and the company’s immigration lawyer — as alleged co-conspirators.
Capell, 39, of Southborough, who served as Global Premier’s COO from 2010-19, when federal agents raided the company’s offices as part of the inquiry, has agreed to plead guilty, prosecutors stated. The offense is punishable by up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000.
The alleged conspiracy occurred “in the course of his employment,” Capell’s attorney, Derege Demissie, said in an interview. “It was not like he was benefitting. By all accounts, he is a very responsible family person, well liked by friends and colleagues, and respected in the community. We hope this will come to a quick resolution and he can put this behind him and move on with his life.” A plea hearing has yet to be scheduled.
From at least 2016-19, Capell and the three other individuals allegedly ”conspired to defraud federal agencies by submitting false and fraudulent visa petitions in order to secure work visas for hundreds of GPS employees,” the charging document states.
Under the alleged scheme, Global Premier, which operated scores of private clubs, leagues, tournaments, clinics, and international residence academies, reached financial agreements with professional teams that helped secure visas for youth coaches as the company rapidly expanded across the country, according to its records and former personnel. The sponsorship, ticket, and scouting-service agreements were valued from about $25,000 to $50,000 per team, records indicate.
Prosecutors allege Capell and co-conspirators also created fraudulent coaching licenses for visa applicants.
At least seven professional soccer clubs, including the Breakers, New Jersey-based Sky Blue, and the former Syracuse Silver Knights, participated in the arrangement, according to the charging document.
In addition, Global Premier itself fraudulently obtained an unspecified number of visas for its employees, prosecutors allege.
The case is under investigation by the US departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Labor, and State.
Capell’s alleged co-conspirators are not named in the charging document, but the Globe has verified through a review of court documents, business records, and interviews with key figures that they include Joe Bradley, Global Premier’s co-founder and former CEO, and Keith Pabian, the founding partner of Framingham-based Pabian Law, which specializes in immigration matters for teams throughout the soccer industry.
Bradley, of Newton, said in a statement to the Globe, “We acted, at all times, with the direction of legal counsel. We particularly sought out and relied upon immigration counsel and did as that counsel advised that we do. I do not believe that we violated any immigration laws and we certainly aimed to comply with all the laws.”
Pabian did not respond to requests for comment.
Another Global Premier manager, Gavin MacPhee, was convicted last year of obstructing the investigation and awaits sentencing.
A former co-managing partner of the Breakers and the team’s former general manager are cited in the charging document as “Individual-2″ and “Individual-3,” but not as co-conspirators. The club’s former managing partners, John Power, of Weston, and Michael Stoller, of Newton, declined to comment. The former general manager, a Briton named Lee Billiard, has returned to England and could not be reached.
Breakers seen as active partners
Global Premier records show that company officials, during the period under scrutiny by law enforcement, were scrambling to secure various types of visas for foreign coaches as demand grew and US immigration restrictions tightened. Global Premier operated programs in more than 20 states from coast to coast, as well as in Puerto Rico and Canada.
“There were a lot of very sketchy practices with visas,” Will Wilson, a former Global Premier coach from England, told the Globe. “At the time, you’re not entirely sure it’s above-board, but you go with it anyway because you want a job.”
Global Premier’s arrangement with the professional soccer teams involved a type of visa known as a P-1S, which generally is reserved for essential support staff for pro athletes and teams, such as scouts, trainers, broadcasters, referees, interpreters, and personal coaches for individual athletes like golfers and tennis players.
The professional clubs allegedly submitted immigration petitions for P-1S visas, stating they would employ the foreign workers as scouts, and Global Premier instructed the visa applicants, mostly British and Irish, to affirm to US officials that they would work as scouts for the pro teams and live near the teams’ home cities.
However, once the workers received their visas, they fanned out across the country to coach youth clubs affiliated with Global Premier. They never worked as scouts and never were paid by the professional teams, according to former Global Premier coaches and company records.
The alleged visa partnership ended in 2018, after US immigration authorities grew suspicious of the professional soccer teams submitting an unusually high number of petitions for scouts.
Before the Boston Breakers folded in 2018, the organization submitted more than 70 petitions to US immigration authorities stating that foreign visa applicants would scout for the team, according to company records. In fact, the foreigners would coach for Global Premier.
Billiard, the former general manager of the Breakers, who competed in the National Women’s Soccer League and played at Harvard, previously worked for Global Premier.
Among the foreign youth coaches who entered the US by affirming to immigration authorities they would work as scouts for the Breakers was a European who became a manager of one of Global Premier’s New England affiliates.
The coach, who asked not to be identified because he remains in the country and is concerned about his immigration status, said he never scouted or worked a day for the Breakers. But he downplayed the magnitude of the alleged scheme.
Global Premier “told us the company’s immigration lawyers said the visas were legal,” the coach said. “I still don’t know if they were legal. If GPS did something wrong, that’s awful, but it’s not like it involved human trafficking or drug dealing. We were coaching children.”
Warnings to applicants
Other than the Breakers, Sky Blue was Global Premier’s most active partner in the immigration arrangement, submitting petitions for about 40 visa applicants on behalf of Global Premier, according to company records.
Sky Blue’s coach at the time, Christy Holly, also was a friend and former employee of Bradley’s. Both grew up in Derry, Northern Ireland, and played professionally. Bradley also captained the Harvard men’s soccer team in 1993.
Holly, who left Sky Blue in 2017, described himself in an interview as the “mutual connection” between Global Premier and Sky Blue. He said he empathizes with Bradley because immigration attorneys for both Global Premier and Sky Blue deemed the visa arrangement legal.
“I really do feel for him because when everybody involved goes through their attorneys and follows those guidelines, the expectation is that you’re doing things right,” Holly said.
While none of the Global Premier coaches who entered the country through Sky Blue petitions worked as scouts, Holly said he benefited from scouting information he received from Global Premier’s vast network under Sky Blue’s agreement with the youth soccer company.
“On multiple occasions, that information definitely helped with my decision making when it came to drafting or signing or not signing players,” he said.
Sky Blue’s current management said in a statement to the Globe, “In 2018, Sky Blue personnel became aware of an investigation relating to Global Premier Soccer. The team has received no further information about the investigation since then and has had no relationship with GPS since 2016.”
Sky Blue has been principally owned since 2008 by New Jersey’s governor, Philip Murphy, and his wife, Tammy. A spokesman for the governor said Murphy deferred to Sky Blue’s statement.
As for Wilson, the former Global Premier coach said company officials directed him in 2017 and 2018 to apply for several different types of visas, including a P-1S through the Syracuse Silver Knights of the Major Arena Soccer League.
Wilson said Global Premier advised him to take to his interview with US immigration officials a copy of a Silver Knights contract indicating he would work for the team as a scout.
“DO NOT TAKE YOUR GPS CONTRACT WITH YOU,” the advisory stated, according to a copy obtained by the Globe.
As immigration officials grew suspicious in 2018, they began shelving many P-1S visa applications, according to company records, including Wilson’s. He said Global Premier then recommended he seek a student exchange visa.
Wilson said Global Premier instructed him to tell embassy officials the purpose of his exchange visit was to observe American soccer so he could share his newfound knowledge in England, as if Americans knew more about soccer than the British.
Wilson showed the Globe a copy of a Global Premier document advising him that, if he were asked by immigration officials whether he planned to coach in the United States, he should reply, “NO!”
“We were told by GPS to never say we were coaching, even though coaching was our full-time job,” Wilson said. “I’m not a very good liar, so I was very worried about it. Luckily, the woman at the embassy didn’t ask.”
Once he received his visa, Wilson served as director of Global Premier youth soccer camps in Missouri.
In all, the Silver Knights allegedly submitted about 20 petitions to help Global Premier fill its coaching needs. In 2018, the Silver Knights merged with the Utica Comets and became Utica City FC, also of the Major Arena Soccer League. The Syracuse franchise was owned by Tommy Tanner, who is described in the charging document as “Individual-1″ and is now general manager of the Utica club. Tanner declined to comment.
Black eye for youth sports
The federal investigation began after Global Premier sold a majority stake in the company to Legacy Global Sports in 2016 for $14.2 million. Bradley stayed on to manage the business, which generated nearly half of Legacy’s revenue.
Company records show Bradley and other Global Premier executives were aware of the investigation more than a year before federal agents raided the company’s offices in October 2019. After the raid, word spread about the investigation, damaging the company’s image.
“In youth sports, the last thing you want as a parent is to have your kids associated with an organization that’s criminally malfeasant,” said Phil Silveira, the chief financial officer for Legacy Global Sports when it fell into bankruptcy. “People started bolting for other organizations.”
Legacy has cooperated with prosecutors, responding to subpoena requests for records and running up legal bills that further depleted its dwindling assets.
The company’s failure has left thousands of parents, coaches, staffers, vendors, and investors with little hope of recovering a combined $30 million they are owed. The bankruptcy left more than 400 people jobless, including more than 130 in Massachusetts.
State Sen. Barry Finegold, responding to a Globe report last month on the bankruptcy, said in an interview that he is filing legislation to create a special commission to study the youth sports industry in Massachusetts and determine whether stronger oversight and accountability is warranted.
“We want to make sure things are on the up-and-up,” Finegold said. “We’re seeing a much greater commercialization and privatization of youth sports, and it prompts many of us to want to ask, are the youth in our society really the beneficiaries of this or is it someone else?”
Meanwhile, the federal inquiry continues. MacPhee pleaded guilty in March to deleting a company executive’s e-mail account during the investigation, though the account belonged to an executive who was not directly involved in the visa arrangement. MacPhee faces up to 20 years in prison, but his sentencing has been delayed since September, indicating he may be cooperating with prosecutors.
As for Bradley, Legacy Global Sports has stated in a court document that it wants him “criminally charged.” Bradley has stood his ground and sued Legacy for alleged defamation. But the business he helped to create — a company that served thousands of children, including many in impoverished countries through its nonprofit foundation — lies in ruins.
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.