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Leaders defend Newport Aquatic Center to city and decry ‘scorched-earth tactics’ by critics

Leaders defend Newport Aquatic Center to city and decry ‘scorched-earth tactics’ by critics
High school-age boys rowing for the Newport Aquatic Center cruise through the Back Bay during a 2018 practice. (File Photo)

While contending the city has no jurisdiction in the matter, leaders of the Newport Aquatic Center gave a lengthy explanation to the city of Newport Beach in response to questions about the center’s ongoing internal conflict.

In a 43-page letter dated Friday, along with 78 pages of supporting documents, NAC Executive Director Billy Whitford and board President William Grant defended themselves and other center officials, saying they “have nothing to hide and instead have much about which to boast” amid allegations from two former board members of financial misconduct, harassment and retaliation.

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Whitford and Grant called the accusations “scorched-earth tactics by those who desire to either destroy the NAC or usurp control of it.”

The battle has included internal investigations, several direct appeals to Newport Beach officials at City Council meetings, a query from the state attorney general’s office and a lawsuit filed in 2017 by then-board members Bruce Ibbetson and Donna Warwick against Whitford, Grant, fellow board members Jon Van Cleave and Jim Netzer and several NAC staff members.

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In March 2018, an Orange County Superior Court judge denied the plaintiffs’ request to appoint a receiver for the aquatic center.

The plaintiffs have since taken their complaints to the city, asking it to cancel its lease of land for the center on the shores of Upper Newport Bay.

“In effect, the city is now being asked to second-guess the court’s decision because the city is being asked to review the same basic arguments and information that the court determined were unsupported,” Grant and Whitford wrote in their letter to Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp in answer to 48 allegations. The city received the letter Monday.

“In effect, the distorted information and false accusations that have been presented to the city and the city’s request for information based on those false accusation[s] also represents the fifth time that we, as board of director members and staff members, have had to respond to set the record straight,” according to the letter.

High school rowers compete in the “Battle on the Bay” rowing contest at the Newport Aquatic Center.
High school rowers compete in the “Battle on the Bay” rowing contest at the Newport Aquatic Center. (File Photo)

Because the nonprofit center is on city- and county-owned land and operates under a long-term, no-cost lease, the city, as a landlord, has a vested interest in its operations. The city attorney’s office contacted the NAC board of directors last month seeking answers to the allegations, which also are central to the lawsuit. (The lawsuit is still alive but on hold as the defendants’ lawyer appeals a Superior Court ruling denying his motion that the suit infringes on the defendants’ free-speech rights.)

Grant and Whitford said state corporations code puts the matter under the jurisdiction of the courts or the attorney general’s office, not the city.

But they gave the city a detailed response, saying the criticism and accusations largely come down to disagreements with business decisions. They also offered to share their required annual audits with the city.

Harp said Monday night that the city “will need to fully review information that was submitted and then any decision would need to be made by the City Council.”

The complaints — detailed in a two-part series the Daily Pilot published in September — broadly cover financial misconduct, including allegations of using NAC credit cards for personal purposes and directing funds raised for the junior rowing program to other programming; allowing for-profit businesses to operate out of the NAC base; and creating a hostile environment for employees and opposing board members. The latter includes accusations of whistleblower retaliation against former junior rowing director Pat Rolfes, who raised the possibility of fiscal mismanagement, and removing Ibbetson and Warwick from the board after they sued their colleagues.

Warwick, Ibbetson and several parents of middle and high school students in the competitive junior rowing program assert the matter is about loose ethics to the point of corruption.

The other side says it’s a power play in an attempt to take control of the center to exalt junior rowing above other programs.

NAC has offered recreational and competitive rowing and paddling for boaters of all ages since 1987. Grant and Whitford said they are proud of the junior rowers but added that NAC is for everybody.

Warwick has denied claims of elitism and said last year that she wants accountability and segregated funds for junior rowing so it doesn’t subsidize adult programs. Currently, all NAC funds go into one pot.

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“I’m fighting for financial integrity and what’s fair for everyone,” she said.

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Grant and Whitford’s letter characterized the critics’ accusations as misunderstandings, intentional distortions or outright falsehoods.

The two categorically denied dozens of accusations and called others “too vague.”

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