For mom Denice Pozo, football practice is a family affair.
“There was a time when we had four football games in one day,” she said. “To us, football is life.”
Her four boys have played for Miami Xtreme Youth Football Inc. - one of the largest youth football leagues in Florida.
Pozo says the sport has taught them some valuable life lessons like discipline, athleticism and camaraderie.
But in 2013, Miami Xtreme members got an unexpected lesson.
The league’s former treasurer was accused of taking nearly $50,000 from the organization’s bank account.
The charges were dropped after he completed a diversion program and paid some of the money back.
Richard Raphael, the league’s current president, admits that this was not the group’s first case of embezzlement.
“I have learned that approximately three individuals had previously stolen money from the league and those incidents had gone unreported,” he said.
“It’s very sad. You would like to think that this is sacred. Right?” Pozo says. “You don’t steal from children.”
What Miami Xtreme dealt with is a problem facing youth sports leagues across the country.
According to police and court records reviewed by NBC6 Investigators, there have been at least 16 cases of thefts in Florida youth organizations totaling more than $500,000.
NBC6 Investigators reviewed dozens of police and court records. Using information from the Center for Fraud Prevention, we identified at least sixteen cases of embezzlement and fraud across Florida totaling more than $500,000. Click on the icons in the map to see a description of the cases in the state.
“I’ve seen some of these embezzlement cases essentially bankrupt an organization,” says Erik Carrozza, the co-founder of the Center for Fraud Prevention.
His non-profit organization tracks embezzlement in youth sports nationwide. According to his group’s analysis of 255 cases nationwide, youth sports leagues have lost at least $17 million to theft over the past decade.
Carrozza says it’s hard to say how big the problem is since there’s no central governing body and the person accused of the theft is often a familiar face.
“A lot of these cases of embezzlement don’t get reported because the remaining board members may be reluctant to prosecute because these are community members. There’s children involved,” he said.
Last year, Mike Hyatt from the Greater Central Florida Youth Soccer League, faced that dilemma.
He noticed money was missing from the league’s scholarship program, which helps local kids pay college expenses. At the time, his friend, Lauren Lemay, was the league’s treasurer.
“She was giving us excuses on why scholarships checks were not going out. She tried to blame it on her mailman losing her mail, teams and clubs not paying us on time what they owe,” he said.
Hyatt decided to go to the bank and review the organization’s account.
“I came to find out that she had opened two accounts posing like my position - president of the league,” Hyatt said.
According to the arrest affidavit, Lemay took nearly $60 thousand from the league’s funds. The money was allegedly used to buy cell phones, gift cards and evens stays in out-of-town hotels.
“After reviewing the list, there are some things that are actually legitimate charges that the board of directors did together,” Lemay told us in her first interview about her arrest.
While police and Hyatt say Lemay admitted to taking the money in a controlled phone call, Lemay said she doesn’t recall it.
“I don’t remember that controlled call,” she said. “I was never informed that I was in a call.”
Police reports show they obtained surveillance video of the former treasurer at the bank withdrawing money from the accounts in question.
She has pleaded not guilty to the charges in court and told us she believes she was framed.
Hyatt said Lemay repaid $10,000. Police reports confirm the money was repaid. Lemay now says she was extorted to pay that money.
Hyatt tells us he's surprised to hear her extortion allegation.
"If you were innocent of taking money, would you pay back $10,000? For any reasons under any circumstances? If we were extorting her then she could have taken it to the police," Hyatt said.
The mother of two is now facing theft and fraud charges. Her trial is set for later this summer.
Meanwhile, Carrozza says thefts from youth sports are often similar.
“These aren’t sophisticated criminals and the techniques that they’re using to steal money from these associations are very simple,” he said. “They’re writing checks to themselves or paying personal bills with the association’s checking account. I’ve also seen abuse with debit cards and credit cards.”
Miami Xtreme has taken several steps to prevent fraud in their organization including doing background checks on all volunteers, making invoices available at meetings and giving multiple board members access to inspect bank accounts.
The league’s president tells us that he hopes these steps help to keep the focus in the right place.
“At the end of the day, it’s about these kids and providing services to these kids,” Raphael said.