SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS?

This may be remembered as the summer kids’ baseball lost its innocence. There are allegations that several teams in the District are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars while using government recreation centers and equipment, without providing any direct financial contribution to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). Some residents are complaining about the arrangement, and they have asked the city’s inspector general to look into the matter.

One complaint sent last month cites three youth baseball programs—Home Run Baseball Camp, the Northwest Washington/2nd District Little League, and Headfirst Baseball. Inspector General spokesperson Gloria Johnson says the letter, according to standard procedure, has been forwarded to the DPR for an initial response.

“There are those of us here in D.C. who believe that what is being openly conducted is not right,” reads the unsigned letter, which, LL has learned, was written by several Northwest residents active in park issues.

Home Run Baseball Camp says it provides “programs designed to use baseball readiness and mentoring for elementary school children as a vehicle for teaching and promoting values,” primarily at Friendship Park in Northwest. The group says it has served 1,000 young people between 1999 and 2000, although the president and treasurer, John McCarthy, concedes that some students who sign up for more than one week of its 10-week camp are counted multiple times. McCarthy also says one-third of the participants live in Maryland.

Northwest Washington Little League is a youth baseball program operated in conjunction with Little League Baseball Inc., a national organization. James G. Mauro Jr., the group’s president and executive director, says that in the spring, more than 400 children participated in its programs, which are held at several recreation centers, including Friendship Park, Palisades, Rose Park, and the Guy Mason Recreation Center. Mauro says perhaps a dozen participants were Maryland residents, some of them physically or mentally disabled.

Brendan Sullivan and Rob Elwood run Headfirst Baseball. Sullivan did not return telephone calls to his office. No tax documents or articles of incorporation for the organization are on file with either the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs or with the D.C. Department of Tax and Revenue.

Critics charge that these organizations have acted as a sort of youth baseball mafia, locking up all the playing fields. Home Run Baseball has a permit from June 4 to Aug. 31, weekdays 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., for all fields at Friendship Park, 4500 Van Ness St. NW. Northwest Little League dominated those same fields April 1 to June 17, according to documents provided to LL by the parks department. Northwest Little League also has been accused of transferring its permits to other organizations for use by those organizations, which is against DPR regulations; Mauro strongly denies this charge.

The letter to the IG also contains allegations that the groups offer “sweetheart deals” that benefit individual directors and their families, providing private lessons for their children while others must pay. Additionally, critics are concerned that a seasonal DPR staffer was assigned to work full time with the private camp. According to the letter, the son of top-level DPR administrator Michael Williams was hired as a summer parks employee but is working for Home Run Baseball instead.

Williams, on behalf of his 16-year-old son, refused to talk with LL and referred questions to DPR spokesman Terry Lee. Lee confirmed that “we are investigating how [Williams’ son] began working for the [Home Run Baseball] camp.”

What bothers the critics most, however—and what should concern District taxpayers—is that these groups are operating on government property, using government equipment and facilities, without compensating the government. The DPR does not have a policy that covers the use of its facilities by nonprofit organizations that are charging fees for their programs—unlike neighboring Montgomery County and Arlington County, which charge rental fees of up to $35 per hour for their facilities. The DPR does charge some adult groups a one-time $25 permit fee, but Home Run Baseball and Northwest Little League are not among groups required to pay for user permits. This is especially galling because these baseball organizations aren’t providing volunteer-driven free services.

For example, McCarthy confirms that Home Run Baseball charges a fee of $205 per youth, per week. Northwest Washington Little League has a registration fee of between $50 and $75 per youth.

Between 1997 and 1998, Home Run Baseball collected a total of $553,710, according to its federal Form 990 income tax return, a copy of which is held by the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue. In 2000, the organization had total revenues of $358,772; nearly all of those funds—$291,005—went to pay for salaries, pension plan contributions, and payroll taxes. McCarthy earned $134,000, and another $20,100 went toward his pension. His brother, Edward McCarthy, received $28,100.

Northwest Washington Little League, which maintains a close working relationship with Home Run Baseball, brought in total revenue of $70,813, according to its 1999 federal tax return, which was not filed until March 2001. Neither Mauro nor any of the group’s other directors received any salary, according to the tax return.

None of the critics are blasting the groups for running the baseball programs themselves, although Mauro suggests that it’s “envy” that has caused some of his neighbors and baseball competitors to complain. And no one would say that the program directors don’t have the right to charge what the market will bear. But the DPR—and by extension the taxpayers of the District who underwrite DPR facilities—ought to be realizing some benefit from the arrangements.

Yet the DPR is so out of touch with what is happening at some of its facilities that its senior-level administrators did not even know the amount McCarthy and Mauro were charging program participants before LL began investigating the matter.

“Let us see the financial documentation when you get it,” one DPR administrator asked LL, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The DPR does not have records of any financial contributions made to it by any of the baseball groups mentioned in the letter to the IG, either directly or through various “friends of” the parks groups.

“This is old business as usual,” says a dismissive Lee, who blames any problems on current DPR Director Neil Albert’s predecessors.

The “friends of” movement began during the early ’90s under the official rubric of “Adopt-a-Park.” Residents working in partnership with the parks department help to maintain their local park and, in return, get to participate in program and capital planning. The baseball organizations work with these “friends of” groups to validate their programs and smooth the way for their interactions with the DPR, especially when securing user permits.

Lee says the parks department is now developing a new policy that would put tighter controls over the entire Adopt-a-Park program. He says the DPR intends to hire a staff person whose specific duty it will be to oversee the activities of such groups.

As to the complaints, Gregory Beumel, treasurer of Friends of Friendship Park, rejects them outright: “I think this is an old story; every year reporters come and ask about this stuff. There are a few people who have a grudge, but I think the community is very happy.”

John McCarthy and Mauro take great offense at the allegations of impropriety. They say they have made thousands of dollars’ worth of contributions to the District government in the form of maintenance of various parks and that they have purchased equipment and helped finance capital improvement projects that might not otherwise have been done. They say their contributions allow the DPR to use its funds elsewhere. Furthermore, they say they offer scholarships to “inner-city” youth. McCarthy says he provides this service through another nonprofit organization, Elementary Baseball, that he operates in Shaw during the school year. The last federal return on file for that organization covers 1999. Total revenues for that year were $16,981, while expenditures were $31,452, according to the group’s federal 990. None of the directors of the organization received any salary.

McCarthy says his Home Run Baseball Camp also has given “over $20,000 last year toward the field upkeep, turf, grass-mowing, and field supplies at Friendship Park and Guy Mason Recreation Center.” He has not, however, produced any receipts, cancelled checks, or other documentation of the contributions. Beumel says the two baseball groups have an arrangement with the Friends of Friendship Park to address various park needs, but he, too, failed to provide any evidence of such contributions.

Beumel says that his Friends of Friendship Park doesn’t need receipts or records. “My agreement with the city isn’t to spend a specific amount of money or to document how I spent it. The recreation director is able to measure me not on how much money I spend, but on whether I do everything we agreed to do.”

The only actual record of private money spent on park maintenance at Friendship Park is found in the Friends of Friendship Park’s Form 990, which indicates that of the $85,886 it received during 1999, $5,592 went to the upkeep of the baseball field and $620 to park maintenance. There isn’t any record contained in the tax return of any direct contributions from either Home Run Baseball or Northwest Washington Little League.

All three men—McCarthy, Mauro, and Beumel—recoil at LL’s idea that any youth sports group using government facilities and operating on government property should be charged a fee. At the very least, these groups should be brought under the direction of the “friends of” organizations and required to make actual cash contributions to them, thus permitting the DPR to track the financial activities and improvements the groups say they are making to facilities.

This is especially important because these private baseball and sports groups frequently do not have a direct relationship with the DPR; like Home Run Baseball and the Northwest Washington Little League, they work through the “friends of” groups.

Both McCarthy and Mauro argue vehemently against the imposition of any such usage fees or required donations.

“We don’t know that one dollar [of that money] would ever get to Friendship [Park],” said Mauro. “Some of the [youth sports organizations] are so fragile, if they were charged fees by the parks, they would go out of business.”

Contrary to the complaints, McCarthy says there is no profit incentive in his Home Run program. “I get the same salary whether there is one kid or a hundred,” he insists.

He says his door is open to the DPR and that if the parks department wants to cooperate with his program, it can “pull up [to this camp] in a bus with 25 kids,” whom he will be happy to enroll.

But that comment only underscores why LL thinks the DPR needs to exercise greater control. And it demonstrates the absence of communication and cooperation between these privately run baseball organizations and the parks department whose facilities they use. What McCarthy doesn’t seem to know is that the DPR runs its own baseball camp from June through August at the Dwight Mosley Athletic Center in Northeast. The youths in that program pay just $40 a week.

OOPS!

Last week, LL poked fun at the mayor’s new deputy director of communications, Sharon Gang, who thought the city had a deputy mayor for personnel. In her usual snotty manner, LL advised Gang that there are only three deputy mayors, and not one of them is a deputy mayor for personnel. Well, it turns out LL is as confused as Gang. There are actually four deputy mayors; LL forgot the very inconspicuous Margret Kellems, the deputy mayor for public safety. When Gang gets her hands on that orientation manual LL suggested she find, perhaps she can pass it along this way. —Jonetta Rose Barras

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