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OPINION - Stealing from our kids

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Running a travelling soccer team is a big operation. My son’s soccer team, Wausau United, is actually many teams – a 16-and-17 year old varsity team – and dozens of other teams for kids of lesser abilities from high school, middle school, and grade school. It’s not uncommon for soccer clubs to have hundreds of members.

The parent volunteers who help run these soccer teams do a tremendous amount of work. They may also be handling tremendous amounts of money. Between membership fees, travel budgets, spirit-wear purchases, and concession stand revenue, it’s not uncommon to have tens-of-thousands of cash flow. If there’s a parent with a financial background, like an accountant or a banker, they’re a better choice to be the club’s treasurer than another volunteer.

That means only a small group of people handle the money – and those people may or may not be trustworthy. Consider the case of Barbara Olson of Burlington. She was the treasurer of the New Berlin Soccer Club, and was caught stealing from the club’s checking account during an audit. More than $12,000 was missing. She confessed to the soccer club president Melanie Gretzon, and was told the group didn’t want the bad publicity surrounding a scandal. She’d be expected to resign and leave the group. Olson was surprised that there weren’t percussions. There weren’t because Gretzon was also helping herself to the group’s money. She’d taken more than $70,000 from two soccer groups that she’d overseen, the New Berlin club and the elite league Milwaukee Kickers. Prosecutors say Gretzon used some of the money for spa treatments, professional sports tickets, and her home mortgage. Both are now charged with felony theft.

I’ve seen theft by volunteers twice – both from my daughters’ girl scout troops. In one case, a parent and daughter were moving out of town. They sold Girl Scout cookies, collected the money the weekend before they moved, and then disappeared. Another family in our Girl Scout troop sold large numbers of cookies, kept them (and ate them), and never paid for them. Both of these thefts were over $200; money that would have paid for outings for 6, 7 and 8-year-old girls.

I don’t know how the thefts from my troop turned out. Girl Scout policy is that cookie-sale problems get reported to the council – not to police. Their staff decides whether the cases get referred to law enforcement. That they have policies in this area indicates the problem isn’t all that rare.

Not all that long ago there was a high school athletic director from our area who was turned down for travel to his group’s convention. He was told if he wanted to go on the trip, he’d have to pay for it himself. Instead he was suspected of taking the money from a fundraising account that had been raised through team fundraisers. There were also questions about undocumented gas reimbursements. He was allowed to pay back the money and retire. His case should have been a police matter.

My feelings about these cases have changed. Too many nonprofit groups want to avoid scandal and don’t want to see thieves among them punished. That’s wrong. A volunteer with sticky fingers is stealing from the kids they’re supposed to be helping. They should be prosecuted.

Chris Conley

Image: Kid playing soccer, Childrens' Football Association by Photo by Libby A. Baker via Wikicommons.com