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Removed San Clemente coach Patton insists he did nothing wrong
MISSION VIEJO – Eric Patton declared his innocence Tuesday in being accused of a countywide kickback scheme with an athletic supply company that brought his tenure as San Clemente's football coach under investigation by school and law enforcement officials.
In his first extensive media interview since the allegations surfaced in the spring, Patton explained in detail how much of San Clemente's fundraising efforts operated and how there were built-in profit margins that fed back to one of Orange County's most successful programs.
"I never made a penny off of anything the district bought or any district funds or any booster club funds," Patton said in an interview in the presence of his attorney.
"I've got nothing to hide. I've got nothing to fear. ... I'm innocent."
The Capistrano Unified School District placed Patton, 61, on paid administrative leave Aug. 15 following an eight-month internal district investigation into an alleged kickback scheme involving the now-defunct Laguna Hills-based Lapes Athletic Team Sales.
The coaching change arrived fewer than three weeks before San Clemente's Sept. 2 opening game and as Patton was set to begin his 13th season at the school.
The district said its coaches may have embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars of parent and district money over the past two decades.
Patton said Tuesday that Lapes sold San Clemente players "spirit packs" during the summer "SC Football Camp" run independently by Patton. The players paid Lapes directly or paid through the booster club for the spirit packs.
The spirit packs included personal equipment the players kept such as T-shirts, practice jerseys, practice shorts, sweat shirts and sweat pants, Patton said.
"Spirit packs have nothing to do with public funds," said Eric Hansen, Patton's attorney.
Patton said there was a built-in profit margin for the spirit packs that was meant in part to raise funds.
"To my knowledge, most coaches throughout Orange County did it this way," Patton said.
Patton said the profit from the spirit packs became a reserve fund for him to get items the program needed quickly.
The program also received $10,000 worth of equipment from the district annually and contributions from the booster club. Patton said the program operates with a $200,000 budget.
The reserve fund, Patton said, acted like petty cash to help run the Tritons' football program after the district funding was spent.
Patton said this reserve was often referred to as "slush" by Lapes' owner, Bill Lapes.
"We needed to have a reserve account because we couldn't anticipate every single emergency that would come up," Patton said. "We might be five helmets short in August."
One specific example of how Patton said he used his reserve fund involved an injured player. He said an invoice for Lapes dated Aug. 21, 2001, for $343.46 was to purchase a special shoulder pad for an injured player.
"He got hurt. We needed a shoulder pad right away," Patton said. "That money came out of that slush fund."
Patton also explained why several of his coaches and some of his family members received checks from Lapes. The Register has obtained logs showing $10,000 in checks.
Patton explained that once the season was over and there was excess in his account with Lapes, Bill Lapes wanted to "clear out" Patton's account.
Patton, in turn, said he believes he had the excess in the account go to several coaches for their work at the SC Football Camp.
Patton said his wife, Peggy, received her only check, for $500 in 2001, for hosting a team meal – an annual occurrence for the Pattons.
Peggy said her husband regularly purchased food for players who were hungry and helped other players in need.
"And we’ve been happy to do it," she said.
Patton said his son, Ward, received checks for filming games and practices and for technology work for San Clemente's program. Two of Ward's checks were made out to Ward's wife, Karen, Patton said.
Patton’s letter from the district regarding his leave states “action is being taken pending an investigation into alleged misconduct.”
“I don’t know the total evidence but what I’ve seen so far is all explainable,” Patton said. “I’m not speaking for any other coach but myself.”
Patton said San Clemente assistant coaches Joe Wood, Jeff Veeder and Ken Goldstone also are no longer coaching at San Clemente.
Last week, the Orange County Sheriff's Department said it had launched an investigation into the matter, but Patton said he had not been contacted.
The Capistrano district didn't return a message Tuesday but has declined to comment specifically on Patton's situation. Superintendent Joe Farley, however, discussed the issue at a meeting with parents and students Monday and confirmed that Patton was removed following an eight-month internal investigation.
"I would encourage you not to rush to judgment on either side of this question," Farley said. "We will be ultra fair and ultra empathetic throughout this entire thing. There is no interest in (making this) an example or a vendetta or anything like that. ... This is difficult for all of us, and I hope you go away not thinking it's a walk in the park for me."
Patton said even if he is cleared and able to coach again this season, he might not return.
"To be accused of this has just been devastating," he said. "I feel I'm a person of good faith. I think I've been an honest person. I've dedicated my life to this game, to these kids."