Cheating allegations in D.C. Little League put high-powered parents at war during LLWS

Comment on this storyA bench-clearing brawl of sorts has broken out over alleged cheating in a Little League serving one of the District’s wealthiest neighborhoods.Not among the kids, of course.The verbal dust-up between grown-ups began last week after an email blast accused Northwest Washington Little League president Ricky Davenport-Thomas and his allies of engaging in a long-running pattern of cheating to stack the league and his own team with talent — allegations Davenport-Thomas has denied.“The allegations being made by these accusers have been so frustrating partly because I have a long-standing reputation for fairness and honesty,” Davenport-Thomas told The Washington Post in a written statement.The cheating accusations hit inboxes in the form of a 40-page letter — written like a legal brief, complete with case citations and addendum — on Sunday, just days after the league’s top players represented the nation’s capital in a bid to reach the Little League World Series. Their run ended Aug. 11 when Washington’s team lost a second time to a team from Pennsylvania in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship game in Bristol, Conn. Some of the games were carried on ESPN2.The letter — signed by Mike Klisch and Erin Sweeney, both of whom are attorneys and Northwest Washington Little League board members with children in the league — accuses Davenport-Thomas of habitually ignoring Little League’s strict eligibility rules to poach talented players from other city Little Leagues.It says Davenport-Thomas has on several occasions manipulated paperwork and lied to parents, coaches and Little League officials about certain players’ eligibility — which is based on a child’s age and residency — to field players who shouldn’t have been playing in the league. The letter warns that such violations could disqualify the league from tournament competition.One parent — reportedly saying he wanted no part of such “dishonesty” — confronted Davenport-Thomas and expressed alarm that his son was on the league roster in apparent violation of the eligibility rules, the letter says. But Davenport-Thomas brushed aside his concerns and reassured the parent that the appropriate waivers had been obtained. The letter says those reassurances were based on falsehoods.Corey Norton, who coached a team in the Northwest Washington Little League until his child aged out, wrote several emails in May to Davenport-Thomas and other board members expressing dismay after his team played another in the league whose roster included a player whose eligibility had been widely disputed.When Davenport-Thomas responded by email explaining that the appropriate paperwork had been obtained allowing the child to play, Norton accused Davenport-Thomas and other leaders of intentional efforts to mislead him.“This is exacerbated by years of friends around the city telling me our league is corrupt … kids on my own teams saying the league is corrupt (their words),” Norton wrote. “I pray for change so future kids aren’t subject to this. My guess is that can happen only with a complete Board leadership change.”Norton, an attorney who is vice president at the World Wildlife Fund, declined to comment beyond his emails.The letter even delves into the age-old problem of bad umpires, saying the league has stood by while they mistreat children, parents and coaches. The indictment, attached as a six-page exhibit, says umpires have insisted on taking “sun breaks,” made excuses for not wanting to call balls and strikes from behind the plate, and sometimes ruled players out when the players were actually safe just to bring an end to a game. It offers specific examples, such as: “April 26, 2022: Yelled at coach, causing the player in the play to cry (problem has existed for years).”Davenport-Thomas, an employee in the District’s Parks and Recreation department who became Northwest Washington Little League’s first African American president in 2017, has been coaching and umpiring children in baseball and T-ball for 36 years.“I’ve never cheated or gamed the system to win at any level, as leagues can lose their charters for cheating, and I would never put our league in that kind of jeopardy,” Davenport-Thomas said Friday in an email forwarded to The Post by board member Molly Quigley. “I work with our District Administrator and Little League International (LLI) to ensure that all NWLL players meet the eligibility requirements to play in the regular and summer seasons.”Davenport-Thomas rejected allegations of manipulating the system or that the league has obtained any sort of unfair advantage, saying disputes have arisen over only three players.“If you look at the last ten seasons, we have basically split the city championship with Capitol City Little League (with Mamie Johnson also winning a championship),” Davenport-Thomas wrote. “We have done well because we have committed volunteers, community support, and very good coaches who work hard to improve our players yearly. … Anyone who thinks a single player in each of the last two seasons was the secret to our success hasn’t been out to see our games.”Mamie Johnson Little League heads to regionals with wind in its sails — and some money in its pocketThe Northwest Washington Little League’s boardroom drama has been unfolding while the Little League World Series is underway in South Williamsport, Pa., just outside the hometown of its founder, Carl E. Stotz. The game has come a long way from the days when Stotz set up the league in 1939 — and perhaps explains why passions are running high in Northwest’s league.Today’s Little League World Series comes with corporate sponsorship by T-Mobile and fields 20 teams from around the globe and plenty of media exposure that can intensify the pressure to win, several parents said. Even without the Series, many ambitious families see Little League as a steppingstone to travel baseball teams, a slot on the high school squad, a college scholarship, a shot at the pros — who knows?Little League International — which has expanded to more than 80 countries, according to its website — offers organized youth baseball for girls and boys from 4 to 16 years old. There is also a softball division and a division for children with disabilities. Teams in the Major Division for kids 10 to 12 years old get the most attention. But the aim overall, its website says, is “to give the children of the world a game that provides fundamental principles (sportsmanship, fair play and teamwork) they can use later in life to become good citizens.”Klisch and Sweeney’s letter says Davenport-Thomas has been able to rig the league’s roster for years because other board members looked the other way.“Indeed, the Board is so biased that Davenport could have explained his false statements by saying ‘umbrella’ and the Board would have accepted that answer,” the letter says.When a February meeting’s agenda included discussion of the cheating allegations, a dramatic showdown occurred. A group of parents — none of whom sat on the board but all of whom had children on the 2022 team that Davenport-Thomas had coached to the District’s state title — showed up to defend him, according to the letter. It says chaos ensued and characterizes the meeting as an ambush “planned secretly in advance.”Davenport-Thomas said the notion that the board would condone improper management was “insulting.”“These are good people who are volunteering their time and giving back to the community. If they didn’t trust me to follow the rules, they wouldn’t trust me to supervise their kids,” Davenport-Thomas wrote.The co-authors of the Aug. 13 letter are high-powered attorneys who said the allegations are based on a wealth of documentary evidence. Klisch is a partner at Cooley, an international law firm headquartered in the District; Sweeney is a partner in DLA Piper, a global law firm based in New York City.“My concern is the 70 or so other kids who don’t play” on Davenport-Thomas’s team, Sweeney said in an interview.She and Klisch also cast their letter, which demands access to a trove of records, as an attempt to bring more transparency to a nonprofit organization that is set up and beholden to D.C. laws on corporate governance.But other parents argue that Sweeney and Klisch’s letter was over the top. Critics said the duo played fast and loose, too, by identifying Little Leaguers and their parents by name when discussing the controversy over eligibility rules.On Thursday, Davenport-Thomas and a dozen other adults, including several board members sent out a mass email that took Sweeney and Klisch to task for their “unauthorized and inappropriate” letter.The rejoinder says Klisch and Sweeney’s email is filled with “unfounded allegations, misleading statements and personal attacks on league volunteers” that had been raised more than once as far back as a year ago and appropriately discussed and voted on as a board. The board also pledged to do better.But the group leveled their sharpest words at Klisch and Sweeney for identifying two players and their parents by name and discussing their eligibility issues in a way that amounted to an “invasion of privacy.”Klisch said Friday they had to include names because the board had ignored and criticized previous reports for not having names and that the letter does not cast the children as “victims or wrongdoers.”“We stand behind the letter,” Sweeney said.

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