On a sunny day in New City, New York, Little League president Michael Cohen keeps a watchful eye over everything.
“In my line of work,” said Cohen, “I don’t trust anybody.”
It’s not hard to understand why. Cohen became president of the New City Little League after a former treasurer of the league, Joyce Bidnick, pled guilty to stealing more than $400,000 from the league. She served six months in jail and paid the league back as part of her guilty plea. She declined to comment for this article.
“I was devastated,” said Cohen. “You think these are your neighbors and that they are doing the right thing.”
A New York dad, whose identity the I-Team is concealing, proves his point.
“I was asked to be treasurer. I took a couple of thousand dollars at first to help pay my mortgage.”
But he kept returning to the league account. He estimates he wrote more than 15 checks to himself, taking nearly $200,000. It was three years before he was caught and convicted.
“There was always a cushion there,” said the man when asked how no one noticed that the money was missing. “I was taking from Peter to pay Paul.”
Rockland County Assistant District Attorney Richard Moran is well accustomed to these Little League cases.
“As far as thefts go, it’s one of the most egregious ones you can have,” Moran told the I-Team.
He has prosecuted cases in New City and Stony Point, just two among the 35 that the I-Team found in the tri-state area over the past eight years in which adults stole hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for things like debts, college bills, weddings and vacations.
Erik Carroza, founder of the Center for Fraud Prevention to help youth leagues to improve their financial integrity says he has been able to document about 250 cases of embezzlement across the country over the last several years.
“The total amount embezzled exceeded over $17 million,” said Carroza.
The first mistake, says Carroza, is trusting too much.
“There’s this personal relationship in youth sports, so they’re reluctant to challenge the financial process,” said Carroza in an interview with the I-Team.
District attorney Moran says a few simple changes can help tighten up the financial workings of the leagues. First, they should require two signatures for checks and money withdrawals. The league should provide board members and parents if they ask, with balance sheets, detailing financial transactions. And Moran suggests that leagues self-audit.
“Parents shouldn’t be shy about asking members of this Little League board for things such as the balance sheets, the expenses, and things of that nature,” said Moran.
Cohen is taking steps in New City to ensure these scandals come to a stop. There is no longer any cash, Cohen told the I-Team. “We self-audit, our checks require two signatures, the treasurer can’t write a check by himself, and the bookkeeper has no access,” Cohen said.
These steps are being taken in the hopes that the focus of these little league teams can return to the kids involved, who “just want to play ball, softball, baseball, that’s all they want to do,” said Cohen.