Ellsworth woman charged with stealing from local sports org
More than $100,000 embezzled
Five felony theft – business setting charges were filed in Pierce County Circuit Court Oct. 4 against the former Ellsworth Baseball Softball Association president.
Whitney Ann O’Neil, 44, Ellsworth, is accused of stealing $111,714.82 from EBSA bank accounts to fund personal expenses, such as shopping, hotels, air fares, parking fees and bills.
She is scheduled to make her first appearance in court on Nov. 29. If convicted, she faces up to six years in prison and fines of up to $10,000 on each count.
The EBSA issued a press release to parents and community members Oct. 6 by email, along with a copy of the criminal complaint.
“These charges are the result of months of work done by Pierce County and members of the EBSA board,” the email stated. “Rumors have been circulating through our community for several months now so these charges are probably not a surprise to many.”
According to the complaint: A Pierce County Sheriff’s Office investigator met with three EBSA board members June 14 concerning “unusual and concerning financial transactions” they had found when taking over the EBSA. After reviewing documents from the EBSA, CCF Bank, Associated Bank, BMO Harris Bank, WESTconsin Credit Union and Verizon Wireless, and interviewing past and present EBSA members, the investigator believes O’Neil was responsible.
EBSA is a non-profit organization that operates the summer baseball and softball events and travelling leagues for kids 8-15 in the Ellsworth Community School District, until high school baseball and softball begin.
On July 12, the investigator met with former EBSA Secretary Cristina Lalley, who served in that role from 2017 to 2020. She explained the normal process for authorizing EBSA transactions would be for the board to vote on anything outside of normal operations. Lalley said the only time the board handled cash was when they collected cash for a raffle. The EBSA had a debit card account on which only the treasurer was the signer. Lalley didn’t know if one or two debit cards existed and said nothing in the EBSA bylaws allows the president or treasurer to spend EBSA money on personal expenses.
The next day, the investigator spoke with Amy Hill, an Ellsworth resident recruited to fill the EBSA treasurer role. She told authorities when she asked O’Neil for past financial books so she could understand how the organization managed its finances and how money was used, that O’Neil was hesitant to give her anything. When she did, it was an emailed spreadsheet with general amounts listed. Hill thought that was strange because in her experience, volunteer organizations account for every penny. She believed something strange was going on and left her treasurer term early.
On July 19, the investigator met with O’Neil, who became EBSA treasurer in 2015 and president in 2017. According to the complaint, O’Neil denied having an EBSA account debit card, but eventually admitted to having one linked to the EBSA bank account. She reportedly admitted to using the debit card for parking ramp transactions at her employer and said she struggled to make ends meet. When asked about debit card transactions in Indiana, Missouri and Illinois, she told authorities she spent EBSA money on traveling with her family that “was not part of the EBSA.” She also spent EBSAmoney while on a work trip in Illinois, she said.
When the investigator questioned her about transactions related to school lunch accounts, Verizon telephone bills and Pierce Pepin Cooperative utility bills, she replied “OK.” The investigator did not establish a link between the EBSAand these transactions, because they were believed to be for O’Neil’s personal use. The investigation revealed O’Neil withdrew or spent roughly $20,000 on average per year from the EBSA account. She reportedly said she shouldn’t have used EBSA funds for personal use because she “had the control of it.”
On July 19, the investigator received an email directed to the EBSA board members from O’Neil in which she acknowledged meeting with law enforcement and indicated she wanted to “pay back the money that is owed.”
“I wanted to make the best I could for my family during a time where we couldn’t provide the best,” O’Neil wrote in the email. “The greed took over and I couldn’t stop, and that was at the cost of the organization.”
The investigator met with Jason O’Neil, the defendant’s husband, on July 19. Bank documents show $13,618.31 total in checks written out to Jason O’Neil from May 23, 2015 to Dec. 14, 2015. He said he volunteered for EBSAand wasn’t aware that he was paid for any of the work. When the investigator showed Jason O’Neil copies of checks written to him that had been deposited, he denied endorsing any of the checks or being aware of them.
The investigator noted many unauthorized transactions listed in bank documents, thought to be done by Whitney O’Neil. EBSA had a general account at BMO Harris and a softball account there as well.
From Jan. 20, 2016 to Aug. 3, 2016, $15,050.24 in checks were written out to Jason O’Neil, with the exception of $100 taken out in cash.
In 2017, about 80 transactions drained $30,721.27 from the EBSA accounts. Besides checks and cash withdrawals, notable expenses listed include $469 at Cabela’s, almost $400 at Dick’s Sporting Goods, $384.36 to Verizon Wireless and $263.98 to Pierce Pepin.
2018 transactions, numbering about 80, totaled $30,720. In addition to checks written and cash withdrawals, $763.36 was spent at American Airlines. More than $1,000 was spent at CVS Pharmacy in Woodbury, Minn. over the year, along with purchases at Nilssen’s, Subway, Target, Walmart and Sam’s Club. About $263 was debited to a hotel in Indiana.
In 2019, the spending spree continued, totaling checks written and cash withdrawals of $21,605.
As the case plays out in court, the EBSApromised to communicate any information it can to parents.
“Unfortunately many communities and youth sports associations across the country have faced or are facing situations similar to this,” the EBSA email stated. “We want to assure our parents and the community that we have been working diligently over the last seven months to make many changes to improve our organization operations. “We want our families to be PROUD members of the Ellsworth Baseball and Softball Association and to be able to trust its leadership. We also want our local businesses to be PROUD supporters of Youth Baseball and Softball in Ellsworth.”
EBSA meetings are open to the public. Meeting minutes, packets and finance/budget documents are available at www.ellsworthpanthers.com/ebsa The EBSAhas retained Attorney Rory O’Sullivan with Rodli, Beskar, Neuhaus, Murray & Pletcher, S.C. to advise them on the matter.
If anyone has relevant information regarding the case or interactions with Whitney O’Neil related to EBSA, a written statement can be sent to Pierce County Victim Witness Coordinator Susan Burr at [email protected] Current board members, whose names were listed in the email,