Sunday, May 19, 2013

After embezzlement cases, Healdsburg may launch new youth soccer league in California

With two of the presidents of the Healdsburg Youth Soccer League accused of embezzlement in the past three years, City Hall has stepped in to launch a new league through its Parks and Recreation department.

City officials said they want to ensure the sport continues to be offered to children in Healdsburg.

“Kids are the ones that suffer if you don’t have a program. That’s why the recreation department is taking it on,” City Manager Marjie Pettus said Friday.

She said the city has the support of the Youth Soccer League for “taking the program over.”

“It’s not like we’re snatching (it) out from under them,” Pettus said.

On Thursday, the day after soccer league president Mitzi Giron was arrested on suspicion of stealing more than $30,000 from the organization, the city announced it would offer recreational youth soccer leagues for boys and girls aged 4 to 10.

Sign-ups begin Monday with practices in August and games beginning in September.

“Once we got wind of what was going on we felt we needed to provide that service to our community. It looked like they weren’t able to do it,” Assistant City Manager David Mickaelian said Friday.

Giron, 30, is suspected of taking the money over an 18-month period. Healdsburg police say they believe she began withdrawing money from the league bank account for personal reasons, using an account debit card, beginning in July 2011.

That was one month before previous league president Kyle Hoffman was sentenced to nine months in jail for stealing $58,000 from the league.

The latest arrest stunned members of the community, not only because it involved another league president in such a short period of time, but because Giron was considered particularly devoted to soccer and coaching.

She played in the Healdsburg Youth Soccer League as a child and was active for years as a mentor, including a stint several years ago as coach of the high school girls junior varsity team.

“She was dedicated to the soccer community — that’s what’s shocking,” said Michelle Payne, a former league board member.

And safeguards supposedly had been been put into place after Hoffman’s theft, including that any checks written on the league bank account require signatures from at least two board members.

“Recommendations were put in place for the new board - a safety net — so it wouldn’t happen again. Those were not followed,” said Payne, who left the organization in late 2010 after Hoffman’s arrest. “I recommended an outside source for accounting too,” she said. “Obviously something went awry.”

As vice-president of the league in 2011, Giron, along with other members of the league board, sat through Hoffman’s courtroom appearances.

The league was brought to the brink of insolvency as a result of Hoffman’s pilfering, then rescued by community donations.

“She knew the efforts we all made to get us out of this mess he (Hoffman) got us into,” Payne said.

League officials went to police Tuesday with their suspicions of Giron. They had been attempting to get some of the money back before they contacted authorities.

Giron turned herself in to police Wednesday and was booked into Sonoma County Jail on charges of felony embezzlement and theft. She was released on $10,000 bail on the promise to appear at 8:30 a.m. Monday in Sonoma County Superior Court Dept. 9.

City officials said the arrest of two league presidents in such proximity made it doubtful the community would have come to the rescue a second time to keep the organization afloat.

“How do you go back and ask for help again?” said Mayor Susan Jones.

Members of the League board could not be reached for comment Friday and it was uncertain if they intend to disband entirely or attempt a comeback in future seasons.

The city will charge a $68 fee that includes a jersey and shorts. City staff will provide training opportunities and support to volunteer coaches.

Asked if the city will break even, Assistant City Manager Mickaelian said “it depends on how many sign up.” Last year, about 170 children participate in the soccer league.

“If we don’t break even this year, we will next,” he said.

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