At a Dec. 20 news conference aimed at bringing closure to a 17-month investigation into allegations of ineligible players in Whitmer High School athletics, Ohio High School Athletic Association Commissioner Dan Ross and Washington Local Schools Superintendent Patrick Hickey, who were on opposite sides of the inquiry, behaved like friends.
Mr. Ross lauded the marching band at Whitmer as one of the best in Ohio, and encouraged Mr. Hickey to someday arrange for the band’s participation at the Rose Bowl Parade. Mr. Ross referenced his frequent phone conversations with Mr. Hickey, joking that the two have one another’s numbers saved in their phones on speed dial.
“He and I have established a wonderful relationship,” Mr. Hickey said that day. Added Mr. Ross: “We’ve become very, very, very good friends.”
Emails and records obtained by The Blade about the investigation show a gradual transformation of the two from foes to friends, and also reveal how successful Mr. Hickey was at convincing Mr. Ross and OHSAA officials to lower penalties the school district faced.
A proposed “fine” of $60,000 was reduced to a “payment” of $50,000 that both sides claimed was not a fine but a sharing of costs for the investigation. Athletic probation, originally set for two years, was dropped.
Game forfeitures stemming from seven ineligible athletes whom the OHSAA alleged were noncompliant because they didn’t actually reside in the Washington Local district, or because they did not meet transfer requirements, were pardoned. Instead, the district was told it only had to forfeit 14 football games and 19 basketball games from the 2011-12 school year because of the play of the central figure of the investigation, football and basketball standout LeRoy Alexander.
A threat to suspend Whitmer’s membership in the OHSAA also went away.
Persistence pays off
What changed between mid-October, when the OHSAA was poised to end the probe and announce the strict penalties, and the Dec. 20 news conference, appears to be the persistence of Mr. Hickey, who was determined to defend his sports programs.
Emails show that Superintendent Hickey and Commissioner Ross, determined to put an end to an inquiry that began in July, 2011, started to communicate directly with one another in November, reducing the influence of their lawyers in an effort to move fast toward a resolution.
Mr. Hickey sent two emails to Mr. Ross on Nov. 8 pleading for a face-to-face meeting with the commissioner in hopes of persuading him to water down the sanctions and inferring that without one, a protracted fight in the courts might be a result.
“I think it is imperative that you and I speak prior to any announcement or release from your office,” Mr. Hickey wrote. “I think that you and I [without attorneys, without staff] could make a world of difference for both organizations and statewide perceptions. I am convinced that years of litigation will serve nobody.”
About one month earlier, there seemed little chance of striking a settlement. OHSAA attorney Steven Craig sent an email Oct. 5 to Washington Local attorney Jennifer Flint that read, “It is unfortunate we could not come to an agreement,” and called a meeting between the parties requested by Ms. Flint “pointless.”
At that time, Washington Local faced crippling sanctions: Paying the full freight of the investigation, easily more than $100,000; two years of athletic probation; forfeitures involving athletic events in which the alleged ineligible athletes participated, and possible suspension of district membership in the OHSAA. The total number of athletic events in which the alleged ineligible players participated is unknown because the the athletes’ identities along with the sports and years in question have not been disclosed.
Days later, the OHSAA agreed to lessen two penalties and fine Washington Local $60,000. Also, forfeitures no longer would be imposed on four of the seven alleged ineligible student-athletes, ostensibly because the four were not transfer students, and thus the OHSAA ceded the district should bear no responsibility for assuring their legitimacy. Their “ineligible” status, however, would remain.
Mr. Hickey and Mr. Ross have declined to conduct separate interviews with The Blade.
Although names of the seven student-athletes the OHSAA determined to be ineligible were redacted from documents obtained by The Blade, a source close to the OHSAA investigation said the four nontransfers are siblings Emileen and Tyler Palka, and twin brothers Nick and Nate Holley, all of whom the OHSAA found to be residents of Michigan and Ohio.
Tyler Palka quarterbacked the 2011 team to a Division I state semifinal appearance — which since has been vacated — before playing his senior season in 2012 at Saline High in Michigan. His sister, a sophomore volleyball player at Indiana Tech, participated in several sports at Whitmer before graduating in 2011. Their father, head coach Joe Palka, built the football program into a state power before resigning after the 2011 season to become a coach and administrator at Saline.
Joe Palka, through attorney Jay Feldstein, issued a statement saying, “The Ohio High School Athletic Association has concluded its investigation into this matter. The results of the same have been publicly announced and discussed. There’s no reason to comment further.”
The Holley boys were named All-Ohio in 2012, with Nick quarterbacking the Panthers to the school’s first appearance in a state title game. He garnered honors for first team all state and was The Blade player of the year. Nate, a linebacker, was third team All-Ohio.
“You’re the first person that’s ever said that,” Paul Holley, their father, responded when told the OHSAA initially found his sons to be ineligible. “I’ve never heard that. The only person I’ve heard that had a problem was LeRoy Alexander.”
Mr. Craig, the OHSAA attorney, wrote in a letter dated June 22 that the commissioner’s office uncovered “overwhelming evidence” of athletes beginning in the 2009-10 school year who did not meet the transfer requirements or did not live in the district or in Ohio at the time of their participation. The records revealed the seven alleged ineligible athletes were from five families.
Washington Local’s lawyer, Ms. Flint, objected to those allegations in an Oct. 3 letter to Mr. Craig.
The source said the OHSAA originally uncovered evidence of 15 student-athletes — past or present — who obtained eligibility illicitly and determined eight of them took steps to achieve legitimate eligibility once the investigation was launched.
Whitmer expelled one potential athlete after determining the custodial parent of the student did not reside in the district.
Superintendent Hickey scored a breakthrough when Mr. Ross, who had declined several prior invitations to meet, consented to meet Nov. 13 in Columbus over breakfast. In an email sent to Commissioner Ross shortly after the meeting, Mr. Hickey argued “the current punishment does not fit the crime” and also shared with Mr. Ross a daily spiritual devotional.
It read, in part, “God honors perseverance. On the way to your ‘yes’ you may encounter some ‘no’s.’ You may encounter some closed doors, but that doesn’t mean it’s the final answer. It just means ‘keep going.’ ”
Up until that point, Mr. Ross had not been persuaded by Mr. Hickey’s pleas, according to an email sent three days later by Superintendent Hickey to Whitmer Athletic Director Tom Snook. Mr. Hickey wrote that “he,” meaning Mr. Ross, is “throwing around suspension of membership now.” Mr. Hickey punctuated the email by calling the OHSAA “enormous bullies.”
The Blade uncovered no evidence of Washington Local being complicit in housing ineligible student-athletes, and no evidence that Whitmer coaches actively recruited athletes, both violations of OHSAA regulations.
The district’s culpability lies in a flawed system in which it did not perform periodic residency checks on transfer students before the 2011-12 school year, once the investigation was under way.
Washington Local has since tightened its procedures and hired a retired police detective to perform residency checks. None of the eligibility and residency allegations carried over into the 2012-13 academic year, meaning previous alleged ineligible athletes, such as the Holley brothers, have since established legitimate eligibility by moving into the district.
Two weeks after the Hickey-Ross breakfast meeting, Washington Local’s lawyer, Ms. Flint, responding to an email sent from the OHSAA’s attorney, Mr. Craig, wrote that the superintendent and the commissioner were working through the forfeiture issue and once they were finished, she would email Mr. Craig with a “final offer of settlement on all sanctions proposed thus far.”
No correspondence outlining the proposal of those sanctions was produced in the public records request.
Mr. Craig did not respond to a request for comment.
Superintendent Hickey said a check for $50,000 was sent to the OHSAA last week, and that the money will come from Whitmer’s athletic fund, a departure from the original arrangement to tap into the district’s general fund.
Still in dispute is whether Whitmer must return about $8,000 the OHSAA issued the school for ticket-sale bonuses stemming from the 2011 football playoffs. Whitmer likely will not be required to give back the nearly $4,000 it has received for incidental expenses, such as transportation.
The OHSAA has not paid Whitmer approximately $2,500 for ticket-sale bonuses generated from the 2011-12 basketball playoffs. The OHSAA likely will reimburse Whitmer $3,500 for incidental expenses.
The OHSAA said in a statement it is “currently reviewing the final settlement” and “we are actively discussing this issue both internally and with Whitmer, so it would be premature to say determinations have been made.”
A newsletter distributed last month by Washington Local Schools to district residents on behalf of Mr. Hickey included a question-and-answer piece about the investigation. Among the questions was whether any other athletes beyond Mr. Alexander — though he was not mentioned by name — were found ineligible. The answer — NO, in all capital letters — is consistent with remarks made by Mr. Ross at the news conference that “the only youngster that was declared ineligible was Mr. Alexander,” referring to the current Nebraska football player whose high-profile transfer to Whitmer from Springfield in March, 2011, raised the OHSAA’s suspicion and sparked the investigation.
LeRoy Alexander, whom the OHSAA ruled ineligible in spring, 2011, citing a falsified transfer affidavit, participated in football and in basketball the following school year after Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Frederick H. McDonald awarded him a preliminary injunction hours before the opening game of the 2011 football season. Mr. Alexander helped the Panthers reach the state semifinal in football and the state final in basketball. Both accomplishments — along with Three Rivers Athletic Conference titles in each sport — have been vacated.
Mr. Hickey and Mr. Ross, at the news conference, said they “agree to disagree” on whether Whitmer should be held accountable for LeRoy Alexander’s participation. Mr. Hickey argued the preliminary injunction permitted the school to let the young man play. Mr. Ross said no one forced the coaching staff to put him into any game.
Mr. Alexander either fell or landed on the sword on behalf of an athletic department that OHSAA alleges let several other ineligible athletes play.
“I know they probably had to have some other things because you would not go this far with one kid,” Teresa Alexander, Mr. Alexander’s mother, told The Blade in December. “They’re trying to make my son the scapegoat and make my son look like he stole something.”
On Dec. 18, two days before the news conference, Mr. Hickey emailed Washington Local administrators indicating the OHSAA had agreed to lift probation. Phil Stevens, president of the OHSAA Board of Directors, told The Blade that the board agreed to the reduced penalties, but noted their vote was a formality.
“We weren’t in the trenches negotiating,” he said.
Mr. Hickey, at the news conference, said the $50,000 settlement was not the original amount OHSAA demanded. Mr. Ross admitted the investigation was “much broader than one student,” but “the ones that we have absolutely found are the ones we declared ineligible, and that’s Mr. Alexander.”
As the media persisted with inquiries, the two men said they wanted to move on and focus on the positives at Washington Local. “The biggest thing that happened today, I hope, is the cloud of suspicion’s been lifted off this district,” Mr. Hickey said.
At the end of the news conference and the end of the 17-month investigation, the new friends turned to one another, shook hands, and hugged.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.