Friends and relatives of embattled football coach Eric Patton criticized the at a board of trustees meeting Monday for “trying and convicting” the coach in the media.
In July, Superintendent Joseph Farley appeared on PBS SoCal, saying the school district might have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in an alleged “slush fund” scam. Without naming any coaches in the program, Farley said on the air that arrests might be appropriate.
“What I find incredibly disturbing is how this district is dragging [Patton] through the mud,” said Jim Berg, who was a walk-on coach at San Clemente High for 15 years. He credited Patton with driving his desire to coach.
The district put head coach Patton on administrative leave in mid-August, mere weeks before the start of football season, following a PBS investigation in spring that contended Patton and others were involved in a kickback scheme with a now-defunct sports equipment company.
District officials with parents of football players to explain what was happening with the program. Separate from an Orange County Sheriff’s Department criminal investigation, the school district launched its own probe and hired a private investigator.
About 20 people showed up to Monday's school board meeting in support of Patton. The item was not on the agenda, so the trustees could not discuss it or take action. District officials did not return messages after the meeting seeking comment for this story.
Berg said he doubted the district had done much investigation. “I think you’re trying and convicting Eric in the press. … It’s unconscionable what’s happening in this district.”
Patton’s son Ward also spoke to the board Monday night.
“It’s been pretty tough on my family in the last few months with these allegations,” he said. “You need to ask yourself if you have all the information and if it’s all correct. I know that it’s not correct.”
The younger Patton said school district officials failed to interview “key individuals” connected to the football program at San Clemente. “I’m imploring the board to make sure all the facts are there.”
Mark Klein said he was one of those people in the know who was never contacted. As president of the Triton Touchdown Club, he’s been in charge of the program’s finances for the past six years.
"Nobody ever called me and asked me any questions,” Klein told Patch after the meeting.
Tom Donnelly, a longtime member of the Tritons’ Booster Club and a member of law enforcement, told the board he was surprised district officials have used such words as “slush fund” and “embezzlement” in the media.
“We didn’t go into a backroom and talk about money and a slush fund. … It’s not a slush account. It’s money that went back into the program,” Donnelly said. He added that if Patton and other employees violated district policies and procedures, “those are not crimes.” He urged the board to get Patton back on the field coaching.
Klein said he expects trustees to make a decision about Patton’s employment with the district in the next few weeks.