The Marana Broncos Pop Warner Football and Spirit League fired it's treasurer and filed a police report Oct. 30 accusing him of embezzling more than $20,000 and essentially wiping out the bank account used for the children's activities.

No arrests have been made, but a Tucson Police Department detective confirmed that the case is under investigation.

The former treasurer, Bill O'Connell, denied the allegations and said the financial shortfall from the league's Wells Fargo checking account was simply due to a "misunderstanding."

A spokesman for the Broncos, which provides football and cheerleading programs for children five to 15-years old, said the board has examined the league's financial documents in detail and believes otherwise.

"By the end of the season we should have been in pretty good shape with about $22,000 in the bank, at a break-even point, and we basically had nothing there," said Broncos spokesman Kipp Drake. "He pretty much cleaned us out."

The Broncos' regular season runs between September and November and the league had finished most of its football and cheerleading activities for the year when the shortfall was discovered.

Although the loss is expected to be covered by insurance, the Broncos were forced to seek financial help from other teams in the Pop Warner/Tucson Youth Football Federation to help pay for some postseason travel and awards ceremonies, Drake said.

The funds for the teams are derived primarily from registration fees, sponsorships provided by businesses and fund raising activities conducted by the more than 300 children enrolled in the program and their parents.

O'Connell, 48, has served as the league's treasurer for the last year. He also served two years as an assistant to the league's Midget division where he had access to fund raising money and the Broncos are reviewing financial documents for that period, Drake said.

According to the police report, the Broncos' executive board became suspicious of checks written by O'Connell made payable to Western Horizons, a company "once owned by O'Connell."

The board members confronted O'Connell at an association meeting Oct. 29 in which he "admitted to taking monies from the association to pay his debts," according to the report.

"We pressed him on it and he finally admitted to stealing the money. We let him go, immediately seized all the records and pressed charges and filed a claim with our bonding insurance," Drake said.

O'Connell also was suspected of forging the signature of Tim Kanavel, the league's president, in order to deposit the checks into Western Horizons' bank account, according to the police report.

O'Connell said in an interview that he never admitted to stealing funds, but instead told the board members that he wrote the checks to reimburse himself for legitimate expenses.

"I feel confident that once the books are examined we can get this cleared up," O'Connell said. "This is a volunteer organization and the record keeping is not the best."

O'Connell said he has been suspended from his job as a loan officer pending the outcome of the investigation.

He said he wrote checks to Western Horizons rather than to himself for reimbursement because "I didn't want some parent a year or two down the road to see that I wrote checks to myself and then begin raising questions about that."

O'Connell said Western Horizons was an equipment company he once owned, although a check of Arizona Corporation Commission records could not locate any filings for the company under his name.

Tucson Police Department Detective Mark Munoz refused to comment on the case when contacted Dec. 6, other than to confirm that the investigation is still underway.

TPD is investigating the case because the bank branch that holds the Broncos' account is in Tucson, according to the report.

If arrested and convicted of theft of more than $3,000 but less than $25,000, a class 3 felony, O'Connell could face up to three-and-a-half years in prison.

The Broncos' board of directors sent a letter home to league parents in November alerting them to the investigation.

"We assure you that nothing about the fundamental principals of the Broncos or our program has changed. We are confident that we will emerge from this a stronger, more stable organization than before," said the letter signed by the nine members of the board.

The Broncos, which have their home field at Ora Mae Harn Park, moved to Marana in March after spending more than 20 years as the Tucson Broncos based at Arthur Pack District Park.

The move has so far not proved to be auspicious. In May, a fire believed to be arson destroyed an equipment shed at Arthur Pack that contained more than $15,000 of the Broncos' concession equipment.

And the move to rural north Marana strained the Broncos finances even further because of an influx of children from low-income homes requiring assistance such as fee waivers, said Emmitt "Lee" Williams III, a Tucson Police officer and the Broncos' fund raising director.

"But we are in Marana to stay," Williams said. "Despite the setbacks, we are continuing to fund raise. We received a larger amount of underprivileged kids (this year) and we will do whatever it takes to make sure those kids and others can play."

Drake said the Broncos have taken steps to safeguard their accounting procedures.

"As soon as we discovered what was going on, we seriously cleaned house. It was immediate and decisive action," Drake said. "Now we're in the business of trying to rebuild our federation."

The Broncos will be raffling a Harley Davidson motorcycle at the town of Marana's Fourth of July Celebration, Williams said. Infor-mation on sponsorships and other fund raising information can be found on the Broncos Web site, www.maranabroncos. com.

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