Youth football club's future is in turmoil

Accounting practices of Bulldogs questioned

Howard At Play

March 30, 2003|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Howard County's oldest youth football organization, which competes as the Columbia Bulldogs, is in turmoil after learning thousands of dollars may be unaccounted for. The club also faces a leadership struggle.

Bernie Dancel, a Columbia businessman who coaches for the club, says he gave it "nearly $90,000" during 2000 and 2001 and that officials have been unable to give a clear accounting of the club's finances.

Tricia Stokes, who became Bulldogs president last April after Dancel says he gave his large contributions, said in a telephone interview this week that "we obviously have some financial irregularities."

Stokes, who, along with her husband, Larry, has been active in the club for years, said the amount of money involved "is unknown at this time."

"Larry and I are sick about this," she said.


"We've worked for this organization for a lot of years, and we were just dumbfounded when we realized that something was wrong. We can sleep at night, but it's been about the most stressful thing I've ever experienced. It's a tragedy, with all the kids who want to just play football, that someone could do this."

Dancel and Stokes agreed in separate interviews that the money problems became apparent late January and early last month, when club coaches and leaders began talking, among other things, about doubling - to 10 - the number of teams for players 8- to 13 years old this fall.


"We were told then that there wasn't enough money to expand," Dancel said. "That's when my jaw dropped open."

Dancel, who is founder, president and chief executive of Ascend One Corp., a financial services company in Columbia, said he made his personal and corporate donations through several checks that later cleared the banking system to facilitate club expansion.

Stokes said that she still has seen no records of the donations he described. She said the club's operating budget last season was between $35,000 and $40,000.

Dancel said then-president Rick Valentine knew about the amounts and the purpose for his donations. Valentine, who was presi dent four years and served the club 13 years in various capacities, left it after the 2001 season.

He declined to comment on Dancel's accusations about missing money,

"I've just been brought into this," Valentine said last week, adding that he is willing to talk with investigators about what happened during his tenure.

"We ran a very informal organization," Valentine said. "The people on the board were basically those willing to donate their time. ... It was a group of people who were willing to do whatever was needed so kids could play football."

Name change

The original Bulldogs organization, founded 21 years ago and then called the Columbia Cobras after its original sponsor, the Columbia Optimists, had about 175 players, plus about 45 cheerleaders, last fall.

The team's name was changed to the Bulldogs 13 years ago.

Stokes referred to the club as "as friend-operated organization, people who shared core values. There was no board, as such," he said.

Dancel characterized the organization, in retrospect, as "very loosely run, not very businesslike in terms of controls, a board and things like that." The club is small, even in the context of youth sports in Howard County, where the largest organization has about 6,000 players and several in different sports easily top 1,000.

Nevertheless, Dancel said, "we want justice to be served, if there is justice to be served."

Police were asked last Monday to investigate the club's finances, although no direct interviews apparently had been done by late last week.

"We are aware of the situation, and we will be looking into it to see if it is a criminal case," said Howard County police spokesman Sherry Llewellyn. "But it's too early to know."

Stokes said that after Dancel expressed concerns about possible missing money, she and the Bulldog coaches formed a new legal organization for the club.

The president of the new organization is Melvin Powell. The new group has applied for nonprofit status, Powell said.

Leadership split

Stokes said she and several other coaches realized this month that they disagreed with the members of the new group on how the club should operate.

Representatives of the new group have begun soliciting players and their parents to leave the original leadership and join the new group for the coming season. Powell said more than half the original membership, including coaches, has agreed.


The Stokeses and their supporters, and the Dancel-Powell faction took part in talks last week to address differences and find common ground. Negotiations, scheduled to continue Wednesday, are being mediated by Michael Milani, a county Department of Recreation and Parks sports supervisor whose duties include working with community-based sports groups.

"I'm a non-binding, non-authoritative mediator," said Milani, who was behind last year's formation of a new youth football league that three other county groups - but not the Bulldogs, who have played in the Carroll County Youth Football League - now play.

Milani also was in charge of establishing new youth football organizations in the western county, last year, and for this fall through the Elkridge Youth Organization. The county recreation department administers the league.

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