10:23 PM PDT on Thursday, August 11, 2011

By JOHN MURPHY
Staff Writer jomurphy@pe.com

Murrieta Valley and six other Inland high schools have been implicated in an alleged scheme involving kickbacks for ordering sporting equipment through a now defunct Orange County sporting goods company.

An investigation by a local Public Broadcasting Service station shows that Murrieta Valley is near the top of the list of 63 high schools in Southern California — and one in Northern California — and numerous colleges and youth sports leagues whose coaches until 2008 received more than $1 million in slush funds. Some of the money was allegedly to be used at the coaches’ discretion.

Murrieta Valley Unified School District officials said they received a set of documents this week from Teresa Sando of Irvine . Sando said Wednesday by phone the documents show the Murrieta Valley High athletic department between 1993 and 2008 benefited from a “slush fund” set up by the defunct Laguna Hills-based Lapes Athletic Team Sales, which was owned by Bill Lapes of Rancho Mirage. Lapes has not been charged with any crimes; he was not available for comment.

A slush fund is a sum of money used for illicit purposes — in this instance for allegedly buying extra equipment without school district approval or, in the case of some Orange County schools, for alleged kickbacks directly into the pockets of some coaches and athletic trainers.

Tommy Leach, a teacher/coach from outside Murrieta Valley Unified, said the slush-fund procedure was explained and offered to him in 2006 after he became the football coach at Temecula Chaparral. He is now an assistant coach at Norco.

“I went in there and (Lapes) promoted this program to get a slush fund going to cover certain things like equipment,” said Leach, referring to extra equipment that might be purchased with slush-fund money. “I told him I didn’t need it, that my boosters paid for (the equipment). I didn’t do it. Chaparral wasn’t involved.”

The spread sheet from Sando and her husband, Geoff Sando, alleges Chaparral received slush-fund money between 2002 and 2004, before Leach became coach.

Added Leach regarding the alleged scheme: “I met the head guy (Lapes) and it was like, ‘OK, here’s what we’re doing — we’ll overcharge you for stuff.” It wasn’t like you’d pocket it. It would be something you’d have on hand, like a credit. But we didn’t need it.”

The Sandos are Riverside Notre Dame High graduates who owned 45 percent of Lapes Athletic and also had loaned several hundred thousand dollars to Lapes, Geoff Sando said. The Sandos took over the company from Lapes as it was going into default.

Teresa Sando said a filing cabinet was found in a backroom at Lapes Athletic loaded with documents labeled “slush” and bearing the names of Southern California high schools.

Murrieta Valley’s slush-fund total is listed by PBS SoCal on a spread sheet provided by the Sandos as $174,346.99 — a figure the school district officials dispute. Law enforcement is not investigating the Murrieta allegations.

“I doubt it,” district spokeswoman Karen Parris said of the Murrieta Valley slush fund figure. “John Preston (the district’s director of risk management) thinks the district did $140,000 worth of business with (Lapes Athletic). So there’s no way a slush fund could total that amount ($175,000-plus).”

To read entire story, click here.