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Department of Justice clears Meeuwsen

Vindication too late to salvage coaching job
by: Rick Swart, Two days after Keith Meeuwsen was relieved of his duties as wrestling coach at St. Helens High School, the Department of Justice issued a report clearing him of allegations he misused charitable contributions to the wrestling program he built over the past 9 years.

For St. Helens wrestling coach Keith Meeuwsen, the letter from the Oregon Department of Justice clearing him of accusations of misusing charitable donations was bittersweet news.

The letter, written by DOJ Civil Enforcement Investigator Fiona Harpster, arrived two days after Meeuwsen was told that his coaching contract wouldn't be renewed.

Would the letter kept him from losing his coaching job had it arrived a few days earlier? Maybe not, but at least it would have removed the cloud over his reputation before the decision was final.

'There is a lack of evidence that funds were misused,' Harpster wrote in the letter to Meeuwsen, Craig and Ronda Melton and the St. Helens School Board on Wednesday, April 30. "Our office intends to take no further action in this matter."

On Monday, April 28, St. Helens Athletic Director Ken Bailey and Principal Nanette Hagen informed Meeuwsen the district 'wanted to go a new direction' with its wrestling program next year and had decided not to renew his coaching contract. He will remain in his position as a high school teacher.

It was a devastating blow to the man who'd spend the past 9 years of his life building a successful wrestling program.

Thus ended the coaching career of Keith Meeuwsen, who mentored 36 state medalists and led the Lions to one league wrestling championship during his long tenure at SHS.

Meeuwsen said he is proud of his accomplishments as the Lions' wrestling coach. When he joined the team he was just 22 and it didn't have uniforms, equipment was sparse, and the wrestling mats were in terrible shape.

Now every wrestler has a uniform, the school has a wrestling room, and the mats are almost brand new. That is quite an accomplishment, he believes, in light of the fact that the wrestling program only receives a paltry $600 a year from the school district.

'Now we look like a team,' he said, mostly because of the support the wrestling program has received from people in the community.

It was not the kind of ending Meeuwsen, 45, had hoped for after so many years.

'I'm really disappointed,' he said of the district's decision to terminate his contract, 'but I understand.'

The past year was by far the most difficult for the beleagured SHS coach, who found himself at the eye of a storm over his handling of donations to the wrestling program - allegations in the end that proved to be unfounded.

Over the past 12 months he found himself on the receiving end of a battery of complaints and allegations filed by Craig and Ronda Melton, parents of one of his wrestlers, who accused him, among other things, of misusing Mat Club funds for personal gain. The Meltons filed formal complaints with the St. Helens School Board, the Oregon Ethics Commission, the Department of Justice and the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.

'This was harsh,' said Meeuwsen. 'I've been through a divorce, and this was worse. I don't know why anybody would push so hard.'

Just five days before DOJ issued its letter officially exonerating Meeuwsen, the Ethics Commission agreed to drop its case as well, after reaching a settlement in which Meeuwsen admitted to violating a state law that requires public officials to disclose conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest to the proper authority in writing before they take place. In other words, Meeuwsen should have written a letter to Athletic Director Ken Bailey or Superintendent Patricia Adams notifying them and the district that he intended to reimburse himself $1,078 for a trip he took with four St. Helens wrestlers to the national freestyle tournament in Fargo, North Dakota in 2005. Meeuwsen said he simply was unaware of law requiring public officials to declare conflicts in writing.

The DOJ and Ethics Commission rulings fell far short of what the Meltons had alleged, including that Meeuwsen had used Mat Club funds for 'personal gain.' They cited the trip to in Fargo as one of the most egregious examples, saying the real reason for the trip was so Meeuwsen could watch his own son wrestle. They also complained about his decision to reimburse his wife, Darla, for expenses she incurred while attending the state wrestling tournament in Salem.

Meeuwsen insists the Fargo trip was a legitimate expense because he was supporting three other St. Helens wrestlers, in addition to his son, something he had done a year earlier with the blessing of the district.

'It's a national tournament,' he said. 'They need their coach there.'

Furthermore, Meeuwsen believes he had a duty to go to nationals with his kids.

'I didn't go as a guy who was out sightseeing all day,' he added. 'They were my kids, I videotaped them, they asked me questions. I'm a better coach because of it.'

The school district, Ethics Commission and Department of Justice agreed that it was a legitimate expense. Where they parted ways was when Meeuwsen decided to cut himself a check without notifying his boss.

The DOJ noted that the Mat Club had no bylaws or written rules that established what kinds of expenditures were acceptable. It encouraged future fundraising efforts to 'develop clear and written guidelines for what kinds of expenditures and reimbursements are appropriate and what are not' to prevent misunderstandings. Both DOJ and the Ethic Commission further suggested that while Meeuwsen never misused funds, he nonetheless should have kept better records.

'It's never a good practice to approve and issue one's own reimbursements,' Harpster wrote, adding, 'Be ready to provide clear answers to contributors about he amount of funds raised, their source, and how the funds were used.'

Meeuwsen says criticisms about his accounting are well taken.

'I made some mistakes but I never tried to rip anybody off,' he said. 'I was just trying to do the right thing.'

As well, Meeuwsen believes he kept contributors in the loop all along.

'None of them called me and said, 'What did you do with my money,'' he said, adding, 'I appreciate that. They were 'wait and see.' They trusted me and I was trustworthy.'

Meeuwsen said he feels vindicated the DOJ report, for which he is grateful.

'I think they were fair, they asked lots of good questions and did a good job,' he said.

Meeuwsen said the 'silver lining' in what has been the most difficult chapter of his life is that now he can spend more time with his wife and two kids.

'I've never had a Christmas break where I wasn't at practice or a tournament,' he said.

Another positive, he said, are the people who stood by him.

'I found out who my friends were,' he said.

Meeuwsen said he is looking forward to moving on.

'Life is a roller coaster and it certainly has its ups and downs,' he said. 'I'm glad it's over. I'm looking forward to having some peace.'

Craig Melton said he, too, is glad the case has been resolved and believes that while it was difficult for everybody involved, there is a positive outcome, namely better accountability over school fund raising.

'There will be no more coaches going out there on their own and raising money,' he said. 'I think it's going to be prevented from here on out. No district wants to go through this.'

Melton said he remains supportive of St. Helens High School athletics and its need to raise money out in the community. He said he believes the best way to do that is through the SHS Booster Club.

'If you want to make a donation, give it to the boosters,' he said.

Melton said he regrets the case had to go on for so long and at so many levels.

'We asked for accountability since day one,' he said. 'I wish it could have been resolved at the local level.'