Youth soccer’s case of the missing $195,000
Did one Framingham United youth soccer dad really help himself to daily Dunkin’ Donuts, vacations, and piles of club cash?
WHEN ALEX BRAVERMAN HEARD what happened at Framingham United Soccer Club, he felt sick. Braverman had volunteered with the town’s youth soccer program for 20 years — first as an assistant coach, then as a coach, tournament director, referee director, club treasurer, and even president. He retired from the club’s board of directors a few years ago but was pressed back into action in mid-February, when he received an e-mail from Steve Meltzer, the president of the Framingham United Booster Club. What made Braverman sick was learning that more than $100,000 was missing from the bank account of the soccer program he had helped grow into the largest youth sports program in town, serving 1,200 children between the ages of 5 and 18. His initial shock gave way to action. He wanted to save the spring season.
Scott Vermilya also received an e-mail in February, his from the club’s board president, Rob Kirkpatrick. Like Braverman, Vermilya had started out as an assistant coach and then served as a coach and tournament director; he was elected treasurer in January 2014. Kirkpatrick’s e-mail said that after six years with the club, Vermilya’s help was no longer needed.
Vermilya has been accused by Framingham United of stealing the missing money, which a review by a forensic accounting firm last month finally put at just over $195,000. The Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office is investigating accusations that Vermilya used the club debit card for personal expenses at liquor stores and restaurants, during a vacation in New Hampshire, and to make daily purchases at Dunkin’ Donuts, and that, beginning in September 2014, he wrote sizable checks from the club’s bank accounts that wound up in outside accounts that could be traced back to him. Vermilya’s attorney, Dave Flanagan, says they expect an indictment this summer, but denies Vermilya received any checks in his personal accounts that were not reimbursements, and says that $195,000 figure is “extremely inflated.”
Framingham United isn’t the first youth sports organization in Massachusetts to deal with what is sometimes euphemistically referred to as “lost funds.” Last year, the former treasurer of the New England Figure Skating Club, based in Marlborough, was ordered to repay more than $50,000, and the treasurer of the Sandwich Youth Soccer League was charged with larceny.
Yet Michael Borislow, executive director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association, says that the vast majority of clubs are well and honestly run. “In my close to 20 years of involvement with soccer at an administrative level,” he says, “I have heard of three instances [of embezzlement]. . . . When you think about the number of organizations we have and the amount of turnover of people in these volunteer organizations filling certain roles, three times is actually minute.”
Part of the problem is that big youth sports organizations are swimming in cash. In 2013 in Massachusetts, 150 registered nonprofits running youth soccer programs reported more than $25 million in receipts to the Massachusetts attorney general. That figure doesn’t take into account the for-profit soccer programs.
Tom Pollak, director of the National Center for Charitable Statistics, reports that Massachusetts has more than 800 active youth sports nonprofits of all kinds, from hockey to softball. They rack up between $370 million and $430 million in revenue per year. (Nationwide, the number is between $7 billion and $9 billion in participation fees in clubs, leagues, and tournaments.) Borislow says that even for a club that’s flush, a theft is “huge for the organization that gets hit.”
MANY SMALL, COMMUNITY-BASED nonprofits are run entirely by volunteers, and Framingham United, one of the largest soccer organizations in the state, with its 1,200 youth members and hundreds of adult volunteers, is no exception. Busy parents spend their leisure time e-mailing, organizing, counting, coaching, and cleaning in the service of their children’s extracurriculars.
According to Alex Braverman, when he started with Framingham United, more parents were willing to give up their time for the club. Fifteen years ago, when the club started its Memorial Day tournament, it was easy to get volunteers, he says; some would spend hours making lunch for thousands of players. Now, Braverman explains, “it’s hard to even get volunteers to register teams,” a task that takes just an hour or two. With a decrease in capable parent volunteers, more work falls on fewer shoulders.
Scott Vermilya was one of the rare active volunteers. His eldest daughter started playing on an under-6 team shortly after his family moved to town in 2008. He had played soccer in high school, and getting involved with Framingham United was a way to integrate into the community. He first served as an assistant coach and then the head coach for several girls’ teams. Vermilya said in an e-mail: “From spending numerous hours setting up and breaking down fields at the beginning and end of each season, to evaluating players during the Club’s yearly tryout period and participating in any number of special club events (new shed construction, for example), I worked to be as active a participant in the Club’s activities as possible.”
In 2012, Vermilya was recruited for a leadership position, director for the Memorial Day tournament, a two-day event bringing 5,000 players and their families to 17 fields. Vermilya e-mails: “Due to its demands, it was a position that was difficult to fill and I was asked by a friend to put in an application. In the end, I was the only applicant.”
After two more years — in 2014 — Vermilya, who works in real estate as a property manager, was elected to the club’s board of directors and became treasurer. He says by e-mail: “It was a position that needed to be filled as there were no other applicants.” So he took charge of managing a budget of more than $200,000 despite not having what he calls “a deep experience in bookkeeping.”
CHRIS COLE, AN EXPERT IN not-for-profits at the American Institute of CPAs, says this kind of by-default recruiting happens a lot. Many leaders in nonprofit organizations do not have financial training, a problem he says has intensified as the number of nonprofits has grown in the past decade. Cole is sympathetic to the plight of organizations run entirely by volunteers — he is the treasurer for a youth baseball organization in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Cole and other finance professionals stress that organizations should be wary if someone volunteers to take up a position that deals with money. They recommend buying insurance to help mitigate the kinds of losses suffered by Framingham United.
Many mistakenly think that they are protected if an accountant files their tax returns and completes an audit. “The purpose of the audit is not to find fraud. It’s to determine that the financial statements are materially correct,” Cole says. There’s even less protection when you pay someone to complete your tax returns; he or she isn’t certifying that your income is what you report it is, just that, based on the information you provided, the forms are filled out properly.
It often takes a loss to get an organization to put the proper safeguards into place. Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan offers this advice in an e-mail: “We encourage organizations to implement internal controls to help prevent theft including having two signatures on checks over a determined amount, reviewing monthly bank statements for inaccuracies or large withdrawals, and restricting the use of an organization credit card.”
Since reporting its losses to authorities, Framingham United has seen the community rally around the organization. Club president Rob Kirkpatrick says that Framingham Youth Lacrosse made a “modest donation” to the soccer club. Ali Corton, who has a 9-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter who play on Framingham United teams, started a GoFundMe campaign that has raised close to $2,000. Corton has not been an active volunteer with the club but is now thinking about getting more involved.
Framingham United has also worked to improve its internal controls. When Alex Braverman stepped in as interim treasurer, he immediately got rid of the debit card and made sure that checks require dual signatures and that bank statements are regularly reviewed, including online account access for several individuals. Braverman also established a Treasurer’s Committee, from which he hopes to recruit a new treasurer.
While Framingham’s goal is to find a volunteer, some youth sports clubs in Massachusetts have turned to professional bookkeepers. Sarah Steinberg, whose eldest son played with Framingham United for 10 years, isn’t sure adults should be compensated for involvement with the club, because “you want the money in these kinds of organizations to go to the kids.” But Braverman isn’t convinced that’s possible anymore, at least when it comes to handling the finances. He thinks the club should at least consider hiring a professional. Emalie Gainey, spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, explains in an e-mail that a situation like Framingham’s not only harms a particular club or team in the short term, “it also undermines the public’s trust in these organizations.”
The breach of trust is often as difficult to deal with as the financial losses, as other volunteers feel violated and used, not to mention that the accused may be the mother or father of your child’s best friend and teammate. Steve Meltzer, president of Framingham United’s Boosters, says he is in shock at the idea that someone would betray the kids in the program. He sees a big difference between “stealing from some rich corporation” and “putting in jeopardy the program that runs soccer for 1,200 kids in town.” But make no mistake that the financial losses can be crippling. The New England Skating Club closed down in 2010 (the nonprofit’s former treasurer was ordered to pay restitution last year), and organizations without insurance can be wiped out.
Framingham United did have insurance through Massachusetts Youth Soccer, and it expects to recover a portion of its lost funds that way. And because the local club pays dues, the state organization has stepped in with some of the money needed to keep the club running until the legalities are sorted.
The club’s kids made it through their spring season, and the summer season lies ahead. According to his attorney, Scott Vermilya is fully cooperating with the district attorney’s office as he waits for the DA’s next move. Braverman hopes he can once again retire from the board, provided all the adults continue to play by the rules.