An independent probe of Bellevue High’s football team found “significant and long-standing violations” of state rules, including actions of celebrated head coach Butch Goncharoff. Investigators said administrators “deliberately interfered with or obstructed” the inquiry.
An independent investigation into the Bellevue High football team uncovered “significant and long-standing violations” of state sports rules and extensive evidence that the team’s celebrated head coach, Butch Goncharoff, played a leading role in some of the program’s dubious practices.
The damning, 68-page report spreads the blame wide. In part, it found that:
• Top Bellevue administrators willfully ignored rules violations for years at a football program that has won 11 state titles since 2001;
• Players’ families provided false addresses to the school district to gain eligibility;
• Goncharoff “directed and encouraged” Bellevue football players to take classes at a private alternative school “to obtain minimum grade standards” needed to maintain their eligibility to play. One football player described the school as a “day care” for athletes.
• Football team boosters subsidized the pricey tuition for players.
Bellevue football investigation:
The widespread findings — backed by transcripts, emails, interviews and district documents — were established even though administrators for the district and the high school “deliberately interfered with or obstructed” the inquiry, according to the report, written by two former federal prosecutors hired by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) to investigate.
The investigators wrote that their work was hampered by the district’s practice of destroying residency documents for former football players who had moved into the Bellevue High School attendance area and sought to prove their eligibility to join the team.
Officially, the district’s policy says residency documents containing a student’s name are to be kept for three years after a student graduates or withdraws from the district. WIAA investigators asked Jeff Lowell, athletic director, whether the district “destroyed residence documents for all graduating students or only football players,” but the district did not reply, the report said.
In addition, Glenn Hasslinger, district supervisor of pupil management, who was responsible for student placements and transfers from 2005 to 2015, told investigators he occasionally visited residences of students to verify their addresses. But in fall 2013, Hasslinger told investigators, he was instructed by Deputy Superintendent Shawn Lewis to stop such visits because they were “a waste of time.”
For months, Bellevue football boosters have criticized the investigation as too aggressive and wide-ranging, and they have stepped up attacks in the past week. Goncharoff told team supporters Thursday: “I don’t care what this investigative report says. I can tell you it certainly wasn’t fair.”
Goncharoff’s lawyer, Bob Sulkin, said Tuesday he believes the investigators distorted facts and showed a “profound misunderstanding” of the WIAA rules.
In a statement released minutes after the report was made public, the booster club said it had reviewed the findings and believes it “did not violate any WIAA regulations.”
Tim Mills, the Bellevue district superintendent, said at a news conference Tuesday the report “contains information that requires immediate action” as well as issues that will be examined more thoroughly. He did not take questions.
Private school called a ‘joke’
The WIAA inquiry focused much of its attention on the Academic Institute (AI), a tiny, expensive for-profit alternative school attended by many football players.
In a news story last year, The Seattle Times found that at least 17 football players in recent years had attended Academic Institute and that Bellevue football boosters had helped coordinate tuition payments. Some players had struggled at Bellevue High School to get grades high enough to stay eligible. The Times story led the district and the WIAA to start this current investigation.
With new information from the district and the institute, the WIAA investigation found that 21 Bellevue football players attended the school either full time or part time between 2011 and 2015, according to the report. “In stark contrast, no football players from any of the other three high schools in the Bellevue School District have attended the Academic Institute,” the report said.
Goncharoff told the investigators that he had never encouraged a player to attend the institute, but the report said his denial wasn’t credible and provided contrary evidence:
• The parent of one former player said Goncharoff encouraged him to place his son at Academic Institute. And in one email, Academic Institute Director Jennifer Vice wrote to the father about the player’s academic schedule and said that if he disagreed with the schedule she had drawn up, they would need to meet with “Coach Butch.”
• The report noted that another player, who had told The Times last year that Goncharoff encouraged him to attend Academic Institute, said on AI’s website that “my coach got me into” the school.
• Another parent reported that after telling Goncharoff he could not afford the school’s monthly tuition, which is about $1,750, the coach helped him find a “sponsor” for his son to attend AI.
• Goncharoff told investigators he had visited AI and talked with the school director, Vice, when his players were having problems at the school.
• Vice in one email wrote to Judy Buckmaster, the district’s executive director of student services: “Butch Goncharoff just brought me [student name redacted by the District] transcript and would like [student name redacted by the District] to come to summer school to replace the following classes,” then listed them.
Within minutes, Buckmaster replied that Goncharoff needed to “fill out the paperwork and submit it to my office.” Vice quickly replied, “I will call him right now and tell him to come by.” No mention was made of any parent involvement.
• Goncharoff wanted a player to take four summer classes “to replace the grades he had received at BHS,” the investigators wrote. The player had received four Fs in his Bellevue High classes, making him ineligible to play football. At the for-profit school, however, he took the same four classes and got three Bs and an A, according to the report.
Citing redacted transcripts of Bellevue football players at AI, the report found other “dramatic improvements” in players’ grades once they attended the institute.
• One player who attended AI told investigators that one teacher provided him answers to tests. He called the program a “joke” that served as a “day care” for players.
The Academic Institute defended its academic standards after a Seattle Times story last year cited two former AI teachers calling the school a “diploma mill.”
Players get tuition discounts
Vice reported that six players received “scholarships” at her school, the report said. The booster club had given more than $30,000 to the school, she told investigators, but the money was not earmarked to cover tuition for specific athletes.
But the report said such claims were not credible.
One family told investigators that the Razore family, a big supporter of the Bellevue football program, was helping with their son’s tuition. The father once thanked Jeff Razore, an assistant football coach at the time, for the financial support. Razore told the father it was “no problem,” according to the report.
Jeff Razore and his three brothers are sons of Warren Razore, who ran one of the nation’s largest privately owned garbage companies before selling it in 1998 for a reported $400 million. The family’s nonprofit, the W. Razore Family Foundation, provided $135,125 to the Bellevue football booster club from 2008 to 2013.
In other emails cited in the WIAA report, Vice asked Joe Razore, vice president of the booster club, if he wanted to come to the Academic Institute to meet with a football player and review his grades. She also offered to just email the teen’s grades to Razore.
In another email, Vice told the family of another football player at AI that “the booster club has to agree to pay for another semester.” That player’s father also said Joe Razore had helped determine how much of the private tuition the player’s family would have to pay, the report said.
The report said that at least seven football players received substantial tuition discounts, violating WIAA rules that prohibit special “remunerations” or “inducements” for athletes, including “free or reduced tuition.”
In its Tuesday statement, the booster club said it has “long supported” the school but did not pay tuition for players: “It is hardly surprising that The Academic Institute chose to allocate some of the grant money it receives from [the booster club] to offset the tuition of student-athletes, and this violates no WIAA rule.”
Cash in envelopes
The report also provides fuller details about cash that Goncharoff gave to a player’s family, a violation that contributed to the coach’s two-game suspension last year.
The district, in a report to the WIAA last spring, said Goncharoff had given $300 to the family of a player for food and rent, and that another coach had provided the family with a $3,000 loan.
But the player’s father told the WIAA investigators that the $3,000 was actually a gift, according to the report. And on two occasions, Goncharoff gave the father at least $1,200 in cash, handed over in envelopes during meetings at Starbucks, the report said.
Through his lawyer, Goncharoff denied the father’s account Tuesday.
The report also found that Goncharoff and others “received excessive payments for coaching high school football.”
WIAA rules require payments exceeding $500 for coaching during the season be approved by a school district’s board of directors. The Bellevue board was not asked to approve any payments, the report said.
John Connors, president of the Bellevue Wolverines Football Club, said Tuesday the WIAA investigators misinterpreted the rules. The club paid Goncharoff about $60,000 a year, Connors said, but it was for other activities, not in-season coaching.
‘Willful blindness’ by Bellevue officials
Investigators said the district for four months refused to provide residential address information for 42 players who appeared to have transferred to Bellevue High and played football, even though the district itself, through the WIAA, had requested that the investigation examine whether athletes had used false addresses to gain eligibility.
After months of saying federal privacy laws would not let it share addresses with investigators, the district did allow investigators to see address information for some football players, the report said.
Several problems were noted: One student’s address was at a Mail Plus store inside a Bellevue mall; at another address provided, people who lived there said the student athlete had never lived there. In one case, the investigators uncovered a falsified lease agreement used to establish residence in the district.
The report said Bellevue administrators exhibited “willful blindness,” failing to exercise appropriate oversight of the numerous football players who transferred to the program.
The report said Mills, who became Bellevue superintendent in 2012, was approached with concerns from a high-level district official, another district’s superintendent, the head of the WIAA, and at least one detailed anonymous complaint. But there was minimal follow-up.
The inquiry focused on 42 players — at least 35 of them minorities — who had transferred into Bellevue between 2008 and 2015.
For several months, booster club supporters and others have suggested the investigation was racially biased because the inquiry appeared to focus solely on minority players. The investigators said in the report such accusations were “absolutely unwarranted” and “blatant attempts at intimidation.”
“Our investigation has led to a disproportionate number of questions regarding players of color because a disproportionate number of football players who have transferred to BHS are players of color,” the investigators wrote.
The investigators also said the district failed to adequately investigate allegations of improper recruiting, which was the subject of another Times story last year. They said their efforts to explore the issue much further were thwarted in part due to the district’s insistence that the investigation be limited to other issues.
They gave the district information on six cases of improper recruiting and recommended it investigate further.