Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association must be accountable to taxpayers, students
(Danny Rennels, OSSAA’s former executive secretary, pleaded guilty Thursday to embezzling $421,500 from the organization. He admitted to taking the money to pay off loans and gambling debts. He will not go to prison and has 30 days to pay restitution.
OSSAA regulates not only high school sports in Oklahoma but also other activities such as music, speech and debate competitions.
The following is a recent column by Oologah Lake Leader Publisher John M. Wylie II in which he makes a case for OSSAA to be subject to the state’s open government laws.)
We’re not sure what the most shocking revelation was when Danny Rennels, who served for a decade as the chief regulator of Oklahoma high school athletics and activities, was charged with felony embezzlement Monday. Among the revelations contained in a probable cause affidavit used to secure an arrest warrant:
• The total amount taken is at least $457,500—almost five times the amount acknowledged by his employer, the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association, when it fired him in March. According to the affidavit, Rennels has admitted embezzling the funds.
• The man responsible for ensuring legal and ethical conduct of student athletes admitted to OSSAA officials that he spent the money on Internet gambling.
• He apparently took $100,000—the first installment under a five-year endorsement deal with Reebok that required all Oklahoma schools to use their basketballs in tournament play even though the schools weren’t consulted—that school officials were told would provide catastrophic injury insurance for high school athletes.
• Even though OSSAA is governed by a board composed of school officials, “Rennels had exclusive control over the day-to-day handling and expenditure of OSSAA funds.”
• Rennels’ fund diversions began with $16,000 in rights fees from an Oklahoma City television station in 2005 and escalated to $174,000 in rights fees and sales of a prime billboard location in 2006. He obtained an OSSAA credit card in 2007 which he used for personal expenses totaling $26,000 over two years and embezzled another $14,000 in TV rights fees. In 2008 it was $217,000 (including the Reebok money) and in 2009—when he was employed for just three months--$161,000.
• Although the DA investigator handling the case wanted 10 felony counts filed, his boss filed only one and bond was set at a measly $2,000.
Why is the last point important? Because it reeks of a deal in the works, and since OSSAA is classified as a “private, non-profit” organization it is not subject to the state’s Open Records act. (New Executive Secretary Ed Sheakley said no one has ever submitted a request for records and he is uncertain how such a request would be handled.)
Never mind that OSSAA regulates the lives of every student athlete and activity participant in the state.
Never mind that it wouldn’t have a dime without drawing funds from taxpayer-supported programs ranging from football to debate.
Never mind that taxpayers have no way to ensure that OSSAA is properly handling their money.
The Rennels case makes it abundantly clear that OSSAA must be classified as a public agency. It is funded with public money and should be subject to all the laws that go with that—including annual state audits. Giving OSSAA the discretion to choose what state transparency laws it follows would clearly be a case of letting the fox guard the henhouse.
We hope lawmakers will make OSSAA’s status clear in the next session. Lawmakers who balk can expect stiff opposition in November 2010.
It is the public’s money, not OSSAA’s, and the public has a right to know that it is being spent responsibly.