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Sickles High booster club accused of mishandling funds, faces investigation

TAMPA — For eight years, Coach Robert Pagano and his players raised money with car washes, garage sales and golf tournaments to renovate their faded baseball field at Sickles High School.

They put away more than $50,000. The coach chose a contractor and was awaiting building permits.

But now the renovation and other projects to help out the northern Hillsborough County school are off. Thousands of dollars raised by the school's booster club are in jeopardy, and the club has debts it cannot pay.

"They just told us the funds are not there," Pagano said Thursday.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter confirmed the agency is investigating claims that the booster club mishandled funds.

Last fall, word started spreading among parents about how the club was spending money raised by student athletes and parents. Members of the club ousted three leaders, and the new directors ordered an audit.

The results are to be revealed at the club's next meeting Feb. 3.

So far, current board members say, tens of thousands of dollars are gone and a loan of about $15,000 was taken out against the baseball team's savings.

The case brings to mind misconduct uncovered last month by an audit of the football booster club at Countryside High School in Clearwater. That club had spent nearly $320,000 over three years with hardly any documentation. After the revelation, Countryside took control.

The takeover was unusual because booster clubs are autonomous organizations that manage private team funds. Countryside cited a Pinellas County School Board policy that requires clubs to keep "adequate, auditable financial records."

The Hillsborough County School District may review the Sickles booster club's autonomy pending the audit, said schools spokesman Steve Hegarty.

For years, the Sickles High School Omnibus Booster Organization operated with a surplus. Members said they had no reason to suspect any wrongdoing. But then, sometime last year, some of the club's board members began holding secret meetings, current treasurer Arleen Lewis said.

President Suzanne Carlin, treasurer Michael A. Rossi and secretary Josephine Maestas "were having meetings to change the bylaws, but no one was there to disagree with the changes," Lewis said.

Carlin, Rossi, and Maestas did not return messages Thursday.

Details on the board members' actions are still unclear pending the audit results. Lewis and current club president Dawn Harrison told the St. Petersburg Times their findings from a preliminary examination of club records.

Carlin, Rossi, and Maestas each held debit cards connected to the club account, which were used to pay for a manicure and a more than $300 veterinarian bill, among other things, Lewis said.

Carlin paid herself $300 per game to work a concession stand —- typically a volunteer job, the current board members said.

Rossi took out a roughly $15,000 loan against the baseball team's certificate of deposit, which will begin requiring payments in a few months, they said.

"Right now we have more debt than money to cover our debt," Harrison said.

There is at least $35,000 less than in 2007, Lewis said.

• Between tournaments, banquets and past debts, the football team's account is $6,000 to $7,000 in the red, Harrison said.

• The wrestling team delivered roughly $4,200 in candy bar sales to the club last year, but now that is unaccounted for and a $2,100 bill to World's Finest Chocolate is due, Lewis said.

• In addition to its CD, which is frozen pending the audit, the baseball team lost $11,200 in reserves, Pagano said.

• The club has $3,400 in unpaid debts to vendors and a supply company, Lewis said.

And without money, old uniforms and supplies will likely have to be reused and repairs put off. Parents will probably have to pay for out-of-town tournaments.

Lewis, whose daughter plays softball at the school, said she has trouble breaking the news to the students.

"You guys worked hard. You sold candy bars, T-shirts, flip-flops, you washed cars, but that's that," she said. "How do you tell these kids there's no more money?"

Rossi, Carlin and Maestas also were officers of the Carrollwood Hurricanes Pop Warner organization. After word spread of the Sickles booster club, they were asked to resign, said Gary Buser, who replaced Rossi as president.

Buser said the three are good friends and were hard workers. He said the organization has found no bookkeeping issues.

In 1994 and 1997, Rossi was sentenced to probation in separate petty theft cases, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records. In 1998, in a bad check case, he was given five days in jail and a year of probation, records show.

Lewis said Rossi was not properly vetted.

For Coach Pagano, he's all but forgotten about his team's savings and is forging ahead.

"Now it's just, 'Okay, when's the next fundraiser?' "

Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at jnicas@sptimes.com or (813)226-3401.

Sickles High booster club accused of mishandling funds, faces investigation 01/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 13, 2011 11:15pm]
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