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Mat Club ethics probe completed

Wrestling coach agrees to pay $600 penalty to settle case
by: Rick Swart, Members of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission deliberated a proposed settlement in which St. Helens High School wrestling coach Keith Meeuwsen admitted that he broke state ethics laws by failing to declare a conflict of interest when he reimbursed himself and his wife from a high school wrestling account funded by supporters. Meeuwsen agreed to pay $600 in civil penalties to settle the case.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission on Friday approved a stipulated order in which St. Helens High School wrestling coach Keith Meeuwsen agreed to pay $600 in civil penalties for violating state ethics laws on four occasions.

The seven-member panel unanimously approved the settlement agreement negotiated by the Ethics Commission staff and Meeuwsen, through his attorney, Adam S. Arms. In the settlement, Meeuwsen conceded that he violated ORS 244.120 when he issued himself a check for $1,078 drawn on the St. Helens High School Mat Club account to cover his expenses at a wrestling tournament in Fargo, N.D., in July of 2004. Meeuwsen also admitted to three other similar violations, including two that stemmed from reimbursing his wife, Darla, who was paid $409 out of the Mat Club account for student lodging at the state wrestling tournament in Salem in 2006, and $180 more last year for expenses she incurred when purchasing food and beverages for visiting coaches and volunteers who attended a district tournament at St. Helens High School.

The investigation was triggered by a complaint filed by Craig and Ronda Melton of St. Helens, who alleged that Meeuwsen used funds for his own benefit that were raised by supporters and intended for student athletes, not the coach or his wife.

'Would we spend our vacation days raising money so he could go on vacation in Fargo? Absolutely not,' said Ronda Melton, who attended Friday's session but was not allowed to speak. Meeuwsen did not attend Friday's session, and attempts to contact him for comment were unsuccessful.

The Ethics Commission concluded that Meeuwsen was entitled to the reimbursement but crossed the line by failing to disclose a conflict of interest or possible conflict of interest to his employer, as is required under ORS 244.120.

'You're not able to reimburse yourself or your spouse without notifying your appointed authority,' explained Ronald A. Berson, executive director of the Ethics Commission.

Berson said that cases where public officials fail to disclose conflicts of interest 'are fairly common.' The commission considered 12 such cases on Friday, levied penalties in eight of them and dismissed four.

Had the St. Helens case gone to a contested hearing and the Ethics Commission prevailed, Meeuwsen would have faced civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation.

In the proposed settlement order, investigator Don Crabtree wrote that Meeuwsen had 'cooperated fully' and indicated 'his failure to disclose the conflicts of interest were inadvertent (because) he was unaware of the requirement.'

Berson said those are the kinds of factors the commission often considers when it calculates settlement orders - prior history of violations, cooperation with investigators, use of public money and evidence of criminal activity.

Berson stressed that no criminal activity had been found in Meeuwsen's case and if such activity had taken place, the Ethics Commission would have been compelled by statute to notify the appropriate law enforcement agency.

'We found nothing that would warrant us notifying any local criminal jurisdictions,' Berson added, noting that the commission would be notifying Meeuwsen's appointed authority - the St. Helens School District - that ethical violations did occur.

In fact, St. Helens School Superintendent Patricia Adams said late Friday that she had received the Ethics Commissions findings, and that she would be reviewing them with the school district's attorney and the school board.

'I'm not going to dismiss that there were violations,' said Adams. 'I consider this serious,' she added, 'Anytime you break the law it's serious. We don't give people permission to break the law. There will be a response, and it will be appropriate.'

Violations of state ethics laws are specifically prohibited under St. Helens school policy, and in such cases, Adams said, the response can range from verbal and written reprimands to formal improvement plans. She noted that the district has already changed its policies as to fundraising by prohibiting teachers from maintaining outside accounts such as the Mat Club account maintained by Keith Meeuwsen.

'In my experience any time there is a violation there has been some action to correct it,' she said.

The Ethics Commission's findings, Adams said, mirrored the school district's own investigation, which found no misuse of funds but, rather, sloppy bookkeeping on Meeuwsen's part.'

'There's nothing new,' she said. 'Keith isn't an accountant. His accounting probably wasn't what it should be. I don't have any reason to believe he wasn't (trying to do the right thing with the Mat Club money). The allegations on the misuse of finances were not legitimate.'

Melton disagreed with that assessment. In a written statement e-mailed to the Ethics Commission on Thursday, Melton stated, 'Meeuwsen used his position as wrestling coach and teacher to secretly pay for his personal expenses.'

Lori Peterson, whose three sons participated in the wrestling program, attended Friday's session and characterized the commission's decision as a slap on the hand.

'If you're found in violation of Oregon ethics laws, that ought to be grounds for dismissal,' she said.