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Ventura County Star (California)


Alleged misuse of district funds and violations of state laws led to the removal of former Buena High School girls basketball coach Dave Guenther, district records show.

According to a letter of reprimand from the Ventura Unified School District, Guenther was removed from his coaching position in October and transferred to a teaching position at another school after he "violated several state laws, district policies/regulations" and protocols relating to the management of Associated Student Body funds.

The district alleges Guenther misused $31,314 on a basketball trip in 2012 in addition to other instances, according to records. On the trip, in addition to the team, 11 adults and four minor children, including Guenther's, attended expense-free, according to the district. In the letter of reprimand to the former coach, the district states Guenther "acknowledged the trip was not to participate in an established tournament but to play in 2-3 individual games."

"The Trust Account financed plane flights, hotels, food (including a meal at Benihanas), surfing lessons, gifts, a Macy's necktie, sunscreen, coffee, gift certificates, interest on a credit card, an elaborate luau for 30 people, and several other expenses for players, coaches and approximately 11 adults and four minor children," according to the records.

Guenther wasn't fired and the district did not send the case to the Ventura County District Attorney's Office. In a statement, the district said there are "limited circumstances" when school districts are obligated to report such incidents.

"In this case, the district determined that the funds that were used inappropriately had either been recovered or were in the process of being recovered," said Anthony Ramos, general counsel for the district, in a statement.

Guenther was an assistant under coach Joe Vaughan for six years before taking over the team in 2007. In 2016 while he was the head coach, Buena became the first girls basketball program in California to earn 1,000 victories.

The Star last month requested Guenther's discipline file, containing the letter of reprimand, from the district under the California Public Records Act. The district complied and produced the document for The Star last week. The Star also requested and was granted 10 years of financial documents from the Buena girls basketball account, which showed Guenther was reimbursed for nearly every request he made — including the trip to Hawaii.

Guenther was allowed to respond to the letter of reprimand, also obtained by The Star. In his response, Guenther states that in his 23 years at Buena High School, there was "NO training with regard to use of funds."

For any sport or club, donations, fundraising and district dollars are funneled into an Associated Student Body account. In this case, it's an account for girls basketball.

"(There was) never a workshop or meeting with administration with regard to 'How funds can/should be spent,' " Guenther wrote. "How can you mismanage funds you were instructed to raise and spend in any way for the girls basketball program. (sic)"

Alleged misuse of funds

The letter from the district outlines multiple allegations against Guenther, including the overpayment of district funds through duplicate invoices, keeping an outside account for basketball funds, misuse of funds (including the Hawaii trip) and inadequate documentation.

The investigation started after a vendor for one of the Buena team's trips made a claim for an unpaid bill to the school site. The district became aware of the claim and did an initial review, then determined that further investigation was required. The district then hired an outside investigator to complete the work, Ramos said. The letter of reprimand is dated Oct. 4.

The district asserts in the letter that Guenther submitted duplicate requests for reimbursement from the account dedicated to the girls basketball program. As a result, he received multiple reimbursement payments for the same expense, "several of which totaled approximately $2,000," according to the letter from the district.

Examples given by the district included a flight deposit for $682 that was reimbursed twice in 2010, $283.18 for T-shirts for cancer awareness that was reimbursed twice in 2014 and several reimbursements for golf balls in 2012, 2013 and 2015 at amounts over $200.

"These overpayments are illustrative of your poor record keeping, and at worst, demonstrate a deliberate attempt to misappropriate district funds by receiving approximately $2,000 in duplicate reimbursements," according to the letter.

But these reimbursements were paid to Guenther, according to financial records obtained by The Star. Reimbursement requires approval from a couple of people at the school site, including the athletic director and an assistant principal.

Ramos said ASB funds are handled at the school site level, for the most part, including reimbursements and documentation. The school board does approve field trips and overnight trips in the consent portion of a regular meeting agenda.

This trip was approved by the board in September 2012 on the consent calendar, according to the minutes from the meeting, the board approved 13 students and two chaperones to attend a tournament in Hawaii.

The district's investigation also revealed "several purchases improperly expensed" to the Associated Student Body account for the basketball team, according to records.

The trip to Hawaii cost substantially more than other trips the basketball team took in previous or subsequent years, according to the district's letter.

The letter states that the Hawaii trip was "largely financed" by a $50,000 donation from the County Schools Federal Credit Union and fundraising. Guenther apparently stated that the other adults and families on the trip reimbursed the account for the trip — but the district said there was no evidence to corroborate that claim.

"You acknowledged that you prioritized the girls' basketball annual trips and appear to have arranged for individual basketball games in Hawaii apparently to enjoy a trip to an exotic locale," the record states. "You viewed the trips as a way to build team bonding and to educate students, many of whom, you said, had never left the state. However, while you may have indeed intended the trip as a reward to students, you, your family, friends and other adults who were 'donors' to the program, also personally benefitted from the trust account funds by receiving an all-expense paid trip."

The adult-to-student ratio on the trip was nearly one-to-one; according to district policy, an average ratio is 10 students to one adult for a trip. According to the letter, Guenther claimed that each adult in attendance had a specific role, including two female chaperones, a scorekeeper, a "statistics keeper, driver and laundry assistant," a "driver and statistics keeper," a "surfing and snorkeling instructor, scout and gopher," a scout and a videographer.

"Many of these roles were superfluous or outright unnecessary," the letter states. "... The Hawaii trip illustrates your longstanding practice of financing the travel, lodging and meals of your parents, wife, friends, donors etc. on out-of-state trips using trust account funds."

The letter states that in addition to the Hawaii trip, Guenther provided multiple explanations for "non-essential adult travel" on other trips to Miami, Texas and Nevada.

The district also asserts funds were misused on "spirit wear" in the amount of "thousands of dollars," gift cards in a limited review of select years amounting to $1,399 and two referee payments from last summer totaling $2,200 — including an attempt at paying himself.

The letter also states that Guenther was reimbursed for the purchase of alcohol for a golf tournament; school districts typically prohibit the use of school funds for the purchase of alcohol. In his response, Guenther said that receipt was "turned in in error."

The district also states that Guenther regularly submitted reimbursement requests that were incomplete or inaccurate, including ones that exceeded the expenses stated in the receipts or invoices. The letter also pointed out related concerns, including the purchase of an iPad and a laptop computer with basketball funds, concerns about golf tournament fundraising and multiple requests for payment over multiple years to Guenther and family members.

The district also states that Guenther has an account with more than $1,000 in basketball funds outside of the Associated Student Body account. In his response, Guenther confirmed an external account existed.

At the end of its investigation, and the end of the letter, the district states that the aforementioned conduct violated state law and district protocols. As a result, Guenther was removed as a coach from Buena and transferred to teach at a different district school.

Coach fires back

Guether in his rebuttal said he hadn't ever been told his expenditures were illegal or mismanaged.

"I was approved every time," he wrote. "The first EVER meeting regarding expenditures happened this year."

He said the policies the district alleges he violated were never presented to him or any other coach in the district.

"Coaches throughout the district are 'very scared' district (sic) will look into their spending and find similar expenditures," Guenther wrote.

He said the team wouldn't have been able to travel to Hawaii without National Tournament Sanctioning or California sanctioning; he said the trip was sanctioned.

He also said his wife had her expenses paid because she was one of the female chaperones. In regard to the reimbursements from the other adults on the trip, which the district alleges don't exist, Guenther said deposits were made to the account and labeled "donation."

"I don't have the receipts for every deposit that year but (the) implication here is that no one paid," he wrote.

Multiple times, Guethner rebutted the notion that he failed to adhere to Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team guidelines, which guide how ASB funds are managed. He said coaches had no such training with expenditures.

"I was an advocate for coaches and athletes just trying to make sure ALL athletes and coaches in the district were treated EQUALLY," he wrote.

Robert Bartosh, the attorney representing Guenther, did not wish to comment further for this article.

The letter of reprimand states that Guenther is to "refrain" from coaching any district-sponsored sport for the next three years.

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December 2, 2018


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