Oregon City High School coach guilty of ethics violations
Oregon government ethics commissioners have found that the coach of Oregon City High School's equestrian team since 2014 has been using her position to obtain financial benefits for her unregistered business.
State ethics commissioners voted unanimously on Jan. 29 to determine that OCHS Equestrian Coach Angie Wacker violated state statutes regarding prohibited uses of her official position and failed to file her statements of economic interest as a public official. Ethics commissioners will later determine civil penalties up to $5,000 for each of Wacker's four law violations.
Wacker and officials in the Oregon City School District are currently undergoing separate investigations by the Oregon Department of Education, and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. State officials received registration materials for Beavercreek-based Wacker Performance Horses LLC on Aug. 5, 2020, after the formal launch of the ethics probe and years after Wacker's equestrian business had been receiving payments from OCSD. Clackamas County granted a conditional permit for the use of the property as an equestrian practice facility but apparently never required Wacker to obtain a business license.
Wacker's case represented a clear pattern of "self-dealing," in which a public official makes decisions that impact themselves, according to state Ethics Commissioner Sean O'Day, deputy director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We want public officials to be making decisions that are free of any personal interest," O'Day said.
Wacker's attorney Rachel Bench said Wacker volunteered to coach the team and followed the guidelines set forth by the school district and OCHS's former equestrian coach, who also charged practice fees to students. Wacker's daughters never had to pay the fees charged to other students, which was another violation of ethics law, but Bench said the school district would have only been acting as a pass-through of the same money back to Wacker if her daughters had been charged.
"This is a very unfortunate situation that Ms. Wacker has found herself in," Bench said.
Students paid boarding, trailering and lease fees directly to Wacker, while their practice fees went through an official student account at OCHS. According to records provided for state investigators, OCSD paid Wacker Performance Horses a total of $2,925 out of student accounts in 2019 for various equine rental fees. OCSD had previously hired an unlicensed business in 2015 to cut down more trees at Barclay School, the same location where district groundskeepers had illegally felled trees a few weeks prior.
Wacker had been operating "Wacker Performance Horses" since at least 2009, when the Oregonian reported that 30 tons of hay collapsed on two horses, forcing the euthanasia of an Appaloosa that suffered two broken femurs. Wacker told Clackamas firefighters that the hayloft had held a 30-ton load in 2008 with no problems at 21353 S. Levi Road, where they were "offering full boarding, riding lessons and showing on an 18-acre site," according to the article.
For their alleged mishandling of the Wacker case, Oregon City Superintendent Larry Didway, OCHS Principal Carey Wilhelm and Athletic Director Andy Jones are under investigation by the Standards and Practices Commission. The commission has the authority to determine that district officials' actions in the Wacker case involved a gross neglect of duty, which would require finding "serious and material inattention to or breach of professional responsibilities." Trent J. Danowski, deputy director of state's professional practices division, said the agency can't comment on current investigations that may result in the suspension or revocation of the license or registration of a teacher or administrator.
Parents emailed the OCHS principal about Wacker's "coaching tactics and personal gain" on Sept. 12, 2019. Wilhelm emailed parents on Oct. 24, 2019, that she had been keeping Didway aware of the situation throughout the personnel process, a process she said would take time "to reach a resolution that is best for students."
State ethics commissioners were concerned that OCHS officials have known about the situation for seven years and never raised a concern about Wacker. OCHS's athletic director told state investigators he didn't think there would be a conflict of interest for Wacker to decide for her student-athletes to practice at her facility where she charges them various fees, because using other practice arenas would be more expensive. While the district was aware of Wacker's financial arrangements with students, the school board never approved a policy for how the equestrian team would be financed.
After parents appealed the school's decision to retain Wacker in 2019, she hired a second attorney to send out "cease and desist" letters to people who had complained about her as the equestrian coach. Oregon Ethics Commissioner Nathan Sosa, a Hillsboro-based attorney, said Wacker "put significant pressure" on parents and the district to ignore issues and keep Wacker in her position as coach.
"That there were no red flags raised is really alarming," Sosa said.
On Nov. 5, 2019, Jones sent an email to parents saying he was "… putting in place a course of correction" for Wacker to follow, but no more information was given about the athletic director's corrections.
In December 2019, various equestrian students provided oral or written testimony against Wacker during an Oregon City School Board meeting, appealing Jones' decision to retain Wacker as a coach. Board Vice-Chair Martha Spiers notified the parents that the board had voted to sustain Jones' decision after they "deliberated and considered the complete facts, including all presentations made by the complainants and the rebuttals offered by the coach and her supervisor."
Spiers added to parents, "While you surely hoped for a different outcome, please know that the administration and school board carefully considered your concerns and the material submitted."
District officials noted that one of OCHS equestrian team's advisors also served as the school board chair for 2019-20. School board member Evon Tekorius, whose daughter was on the team, submitted a letter of support for Wacker and participated in the board's appeal hearing. Given her personal interest in the outcome, Tekorius let Spiers as the vice-chair oversee the board's appeal hearing.
Wacker's case could have repercussions throughout the state, according to Candi Bothum, chair of Oregon High School Equestrian Teams Inc. In her defense before the ethics commission, Bench said Wacker had been following OHSET's standard operating guidelines for equestrian teams throughout Oregon, which says that coaches who own practice facilities may charge their students a "reasonable" fee for participating.
"We would gladly work with OHSET to provide them with the necessary guidance on how such teams could proceed without violating Oregon ethics laws," said Susan Myers, the state investigator.
Myers said that in the future, the school board or some other independent authority should be making the decisions about where equestrian teams practice so coaches aren't making decisions that have financial impacts on themselves.
Ethics Commissioners Shawn Lindsay and David Fiskum mentioned the possibility of sending a "letter of education" to Wacker, but other ethics commissioners expressed their support of civil fines for her ethics violations.
Oregon's ethics commission lacks jurisdiction to punish Wacker's potentially retaliatory behavior. Wacker told the ethics investigator that the "cease and desist" letters were an attempt to stop interference by parents on her business relationships with the district, current/future OC student-athletes and the general public. Wacker's attorney noted to ethics officials that the "cease and desist" letters never mentioned the parents' participation in the ethics investigation.
Oregon's Department of Education was charged with overseeing a separate investigation into suspected concussions Wacker allegedly didn't report to school authorities. Oregon law states that if a coach suspects a student has received a concussion, that injury must be reported and the coach must follow Return to Participation guidelines.
In one instance Wacker allegedly told parents their child was "a little bit dazed" after being bucked off a horse and landing headfirst. Another student fell off a horse at Wacker's barn and the fall's impact was so hard it cracked the student's helmet. Wacker allegedly witnessed the fall but did not suggest a medical examination, nor did she report it to OHSET as required. A horse owner submitted a third complaint on behalf of an OHSET student who rode at Wacker's barn, detailing another allegedly unreported potential concussion.
District officials took responsibility for the potential concussions that went unreported to the state, telling state investigators that the injuries were "addressed, reported and documented" by Wacker, according to OCHS HR Director John Ogden.
"We have found that records submitted to the district have not always been turned into the state officials," Ogden told state officials. "There will be additional monitoring of accident reports for follow through and documentation purposes by the high school athletic director."
Ogden said Wacker has been trained in concussion protocols, as noted by certificates shared with state officials. Wacker annually completed the required concussion trainings from 2015-19, according to Ogden's report, with the possible exception of 2018, when she was "missing the screenshot" of the proof she completed the training.
District officials said the only documented concussion involving an OCHS equestrian student occurred at the student-athlete's home in 2015. The student was cleared by OCHS Certified Athletic Trainer Amy Lepire-Meithof in 2018.
Also detailed in the initial report was various evidence for preferential treatment for Wacker's two daughters, who participated on the team while Wacker was coach. After arguing with one of Wacker's daughters, a student was demoted from OCHS's equestrian "B" team to the "D" team and then contacted a friend and former OHSET teammate who had graduated from the team.
According to the complaint, Wacker saw what the student's friend thought was a private Instagram post in which the student's friend wrote: "Small rant: I think it is completely unacceptable that a coach would bully her own player or person on their team. She just does it to try and make her daughter the best and give her more opportunities than anyone else on the team."
Soon after the Instagram post, Wacker's husband, Kevin, sent a text message to the student's friend. A screenshot of Kevin Wacker's text was submitted in the complaint to state investigators: "Before you rant, you first get all sides of the story … Should the owner of a horse, that pays for the horse and takes full care of the horse, let somebody else use the horse for free OVER their own daughter???"
In the report to state investigators, the student identified her friend's receipt of this "bullying" text from Wacker's husband "admitting to practicing favoritism in allowing his daughter to get preferential treatment" as the "final straw" and quit the team as a result. Oregon Department of Education investigators said they lacked jurisdiction to determine whether Wacker wanted to give her own children an edge in competitive events.
Kevin Wacker admitted that he he sent the text but said the claim that he bullied a student-athlete is "100% false" and outside the jurisdiction of the ethics investigation. He said that he sent the text in 2018 to an 18-year-old in college who had never quit the team and had graduated from the OCHS equestrian program the season prior.
"Anybody can write anything they want to the ethics commission," he said.
In his response to the DOE's investigation, Ogden told state officials that the "school district takes the safety and well being of all student athletes very seriously. The district has taken staff time, energy, expertise and professional experience into account while conducting this inquiry."
Didway wouldn't say whether the school district will be revisiting its decision to retain Wacker's employment as coach, given the recent findings by the ethics commission.
"The district does not make comments on any pending complaints, investigations or potential litigation," Didway said.
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