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 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. (Isaac Wasserman for The Washington Post)

BEND, Ore. — Tara Bilanski was already a household name in the Pacific Northwest soccer scene when she was named executive director of the Bend FC Timbers in 2016. A former professional player who had coached at the highest levels collegiately, she found a more lucrative opportunity in the well-financed world of youth soccer. Her credentials energized one of the state’s largest clubs, and over the next five years, she received several pay raises that eventually bumped her salary up to $119,000 per year — nearly $30,000 more than she made as a head coach at the University of Oregon.

But by the summer of 2021, Bilanski had fallen out of favor with the club’s board of directors and many of its parents, and after stakeholders conducted a survey and determined she had not been performing her job duties satisfactorily, she was fired that August. Within months, another bombshell dropped: The club studied Bilanski’s books and couldn’t account for more than $80,000. The culprit, they determined, was Bilanski and another former Timbers employee.

In short order, the embezzlement allegations triggered a lawsuit that has divided a once-unified soccer community and launched investigations by the local district attorney’s office and the state’s Justice Department.

Bilanski has not denied taking the money but says it was part of a profit-sharing agreement with the club. As courts sort the truth, the ongoing case serves as a high-profile example of what many youth sports organizations must contend with. Youth sports in recent years have exploded into a $19 billion enterprise, by some accounts, but their ecosystem is built on a shaky foundation of nonprofit clubs, many run by volunteers. They operate as big businesses but have sloppy accounting and murky financial oversight.

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Clubs across many sports, including soccer, basketball and volleyball, rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year from registration fees, fundraisers, private training and camps, but checks and balances on the flow of that money are often absent. As the industry continues to grow, many clubs find themselves vulnerable, and embezzlement scandals have fractured organizations and communities across the country — a youth basketball club in Omaha; a wrestling club in Mt. Morris, Mich.; and a soccer and lacrosse club Hanover, Pa.

In Bend, an idyllic former mill town nestled in the shadow of the Cascade Mountain range and known as a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, the soccer club has traditionally been a pillar of the community, a rallying point for neighbors who sip coffee together on the sidelines and organize carpools to after-school practices. The Bend FC Timbers have counted more than 2,000 youth players among their ranks, many who pay as much as $1,600 in annual dues. The nonprofit organization reported more than $1.1 million in revenue in 2019 alone, according to the most recent tax records available.

The scandal has rocked Bend’s tightknit soccer community and has expanded beyond the accusation of embezzlement. Bilanski and several former Timbers staff members are also accused in a lawsuit of stealing the club’s trade secrets on their way out the door, according to court documents, altering records and transferring confidential personal information of thousands of players, including contact information, addresses and, in some cases, Social Security numbers while forming their own rival club in town.

A handful of coaches and roughly 120 players from the Timbers left last year to join Bilanski’s new organization, Apex Futbol Club, cleaving the town’s soccer community in half. Both clubs are trying to move forward, but feelings are still raw. The ongoing case reveals the complexities of running a youth sports organization: Leaders engaged in bickering, name-calling and political maneuvering, all the while leaving kids in the crossfire or, in some cases, 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,” said Michael Gassner, a Bend resident who has one child playing for the Timbers and another for Apex. “And the kids are caught in the middle of it.”

Rising tension, angry texts

On a gloomy afternoon last November, nearly three months after she had been fired by the Timbers, Bilanski met with a paralegal from the law firm suing her in a Starbucks parking lot off Highway 97 in Bend. She handed over her Timbers-issued laptop. Bilanski had coached the University of Oregon’s women’s program for eight years, leaving as the school’s all-time winningest coach. As the executive director of the Timbers, she wore many hats — she served as a coach, handled financial oversight and directed human resources, helping grow the Timbers into a club that today features two full-time employees, five part-time employees, 20 paid coaches and 10 volunteers on the board of directors.

The laptop was sent to a data forensics examiner in Portland. According to the Timbers’ board of directors, the laptop contained evidence of financial impropriety; Bilanski had allegedly directed several unauthorized payments totaling $80,684 to herself over a six-year period and, in turn, had paid a portion of the funds to another former Timbers employee, Jen Davin.

According to court records, neither Bilanski nor Davin obtained approval from the Timbers’ board to keep those funds and they attempted to conceal the transactions by allegedly representing their work running the Timbers-owned summer camps as “a profit-sharing agreement” that would pay Bilanski and Davin a kickback of 85 percent of the camp revenue.

Bilanski and Davin declined to comment for this story through their attorneys. In a deposition with attorneys for the Timbers, Bilanski invoked her Fifth Amendment right more than 340 times.

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Bilanski, 49, still has plenty of community support, and this past summer she filed a defamation suit against the Timbers, seeking $5.1 million from the club and former board president Michelle Hart. Bilanski and the other defendants in the case have sought a stay 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,” said Paige Hunt, a Bend resident whose son, Jake, left the Timbers to play for Apex last year. “It’s not making sense to us.”

The largest youth soccer club in central Oregon, the Timbers date back several decades as an informal local club and officially became an incorporated organization in 2005. The club is an affiliate under the Portland Timbers Major League Soccer team and the Portland Thorns National Women’s Soccer League team. With roughly 30 teams competing for the club, the Bend summer camps became a major draw under Bilanski, who charged around $150 in entry fees for the camps.

Ryan Shore, the board president who hired Bilanski as the Timbers’ technical director in 2013, said in an interview that the club had outsourced companies to run camps for years. Bilanski’s initial contract — which ran for one year — included profits for running camps for the Timbers, said Shore, who left the board before Bilanski was promoted to executive 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 said. “We had those kind of increases and moneymaking abilities to draw her as a new hire.” Shore said he was not familiar with Bilanski’s more recent employment contracts with the Timbers.

Even before the allegations of embezzlement came to light, the lawsuit contends, Bilanski and a group of Timbers employees and team managers embarked on a campaign to undermine the organization, which was born out of tension 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 text that was included in court filings.

In June, while still employed by the Timbers, one of the club’s coaches, John O’Sullivan, allegedly began circulating a detailed plan to form a rival club. “F— these guys,” he wrote in a text message cited in court records. “I am so angry I want to stick it to these f—ers.” O’Sullivan’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Attorneys for the Timbers claim in filings that the club’s administrator even worked as a “double agent” to maintain access to the club’s computer systems and help the group delete, share and edit documents in an effort to form a new club.

Bilanski and several former employees downloaded over 7,000 documents and edited, shared or deleted hundreds of documents from the Timbers’ Google Workspace IT systems in the 11 days after Bilanski was fired, according to the lawsuit; when the administrator told Davin she was removing certain files, Davin allegedly responded: “Delete f—ing away.”

In late August, days after Bilanski had been fired, the administrator allegedly realized that the Timbers’ Google Drive was recording a log of all activity.

“Dude,” she texted to Bilanski, according to court records. “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 responded.

By last fall, as Bilanski and the group of Timbers staffers and coaches were hit with the lawsuit, they peeled off to start Apex, drawing support from dozens of parents who believed they had been wronged by the Timbers’ board. The rift in Bend’s soccer scene was just beginning.

The lawsuit includes texts between Bilanski and Davin that mocked co-workers and also included vitriol for Hart, who served on the volunteer board for three years and whose 15-year-old son, Ethan Wheeler, is a rising star within the Timbers program. When Hart commented on a social media post in 2021, Bilanski texted to Davin that Hart and her son would be “black listed,” according to the lawsuit.

At subsequent practices, Wheeler could hear his teammates whisper that he didn’t deserve to be on the team because his mother was on the board, he said in an interview. O’Sullivan took him and his father off an email list for tournaments, he said, and all but four of his teammates migrated to Apex.

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

Bend is not the only community to wrestle with accusations of embezzlement within its youth sports ranks in recent years. In the past few months alone, reports of alleged financial misconduct and convictions of embezzlement have been reported across the country, underscoring a long-standing issue within the industry.

In Nebraska, the founder of the popular Omaha Sports Academy was accused of taking more than $400,000 last year and was sentenced to probation after pleading no contest to the charges this past summer.

In Wisconsin, a former treasurer was charged with embezzling more than $84,000 from a basketball club over a seven-year span, allegedly spending more than $73,000 on retail items, meals at restaurants, airline tickets and mobile phone bills.

In Michigan, an employee of a Flint-area wrestling club set the organization back after being accused of stealing more than $20,000.

In Virginia, an Ashburn woman pleaded guilty in January to stealing an unspecified amount of money from McLean Youth Football — the organization dissolved at the time of the scheme in 2016 — using funds for meals at restaurants, visits to a spa and pet care.

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While it is impossible to know whether embezzlement is on the rise in youth sports — there is no centralized body tracking cases in the industry — it has been a pervasive problem for years, said Erik Carrozza, who served for more than a decade as a youth sports treasurer in suburban Philadelphia and started a nonprofit called the Center for Fraud Prevention to help organizations avoid embezzlement.

Carrozza has tracked and examined hundreds of cases of youth sports embezzlement totaling millions of dollars stolen in the United States and abroad in recent years.

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

There’s often no governance of youth sports organizations — not from parents, sponsors or local governments — and most embezzlement cases involve treasurers or volunteer board members who have been trusted with an organization’s funds, with little to no checks 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 said. “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 were hard lessons learned in Hanover, Pa., when a former treasurer stole nearly $630,000 from Hanover Soccer Club and the South Western Youth Lacrosse organization over a six-year period. The treasurer, David W. Wells, pleaded guilty to charges of theft in 2018 and received probation.

Tim Swingler, the former president of the club, said Wells was a trusted volunteer who never brought actual bank statements to board meetings, instead representing the club’s spending through his own accounting. The Hanover Soccer Club stayed afloat but was set back years in its plans to develop a capital project for 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 said.

On a sun-soaked Saturday afternoon in September, hundreds of parents lined the sidelines to watch their kids play at the Timbers’ turf fields at Pine Nursery Park, a 159-acre complex lush with towering pines, sage and ponds. Wayne Price kept a close eye on the action, taking a few of the 20 or so calls he receives each day as the new director of the Timbers. He eventually raced to his black pickup and headed to watch his son play for Summit, one of the local high schools where Timbers and Apex club players have come together to play for the fall.

A former professional player from a working-class neighborhood in South Wales who never had to pay to play sports growing up, Price, 42, is in many ways the ideal replacement for the Timbers during this turbulent time — an outsider with no community ties and little taste for politics. He had never heard of Bend before applying for the job, which drew more than 200 applicants after Bilanski was fired. After 13 years coaching in the New Jersey youth club scene, he grew wary there because much of the industry in that state is moving to a for-profit model.

“I saw that youth sports had become such a massive industry. It wasn’t soccer first,” he said. “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 plenty of work to do off it. While lawyers for the Timbers contend that the embezzlement case has jeopardized the organization’s status as a tax-exempt nonprofit, the club is still facing considerable debt to build new fields — roughly $760,000, according to the club’s latest newsletter sent out to parents in September.

“It’s draining the club,” said Andy Fecteau, a Bend physical therapist whose three children competed for the Timbers and whose family used to be close 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 also has been forced to navigate the drama of the lawsuits; while the board has filled him in on the proceedings, he rarely 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 said. “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 families have kids playing for both clubs, including Gassner, who let his daughter, a senior in high school, make her own decision to leave for Apex last year. He warned her of the ongoing lawsuits but opted to not interfere with her choice. His eighth-grade son chose to remain with the Timbers.

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

The fracture can especially be felt during the public-school season in the fall, when players from both clubs are forced to compete side by side — and parents must sit next to one another 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,” said Hunt, the parent whose son now plays 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 most of his team left for Apex, Ethan Wheeler began riding his bike every day to his school, Summit High, to practice. He wanted to prove that he wasn’t making a mistake by staying with the Timbers. His diligence has paid off this fall: He made Summit’s varsity team as a sophomore.

The tension is constantly coming up in conversation, but the Wheeler family has focused on Ethan’s future. His father, Derrick, took over as team manager of the Timbers when most of the boys left last year, and after that first practice in which only five players took the field — “That was devastating,” Derrick said — the club was able to fill the roster with recruits from Bend and other nearby towns.

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

Ethan said he is having the most fun playing soccer since joining the club six years ago.

But there are still plenty of reminders of the split. Sometimes Wheeler will see his old friends at school and won’t know what to say. Sometimes he plays video games online with his former teammates and they will tell him he should come play for Apex. “I get so annoyed by that and just leave,” he said.

His home has also been targeted because his mother is the former board president, according to court records. A surveillance camera set up in front of the family’s house captured someone driving by and yelling, “F— you!”

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

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