Former NFL Player Allegedly Spent $486K in Charity Donations on Gambling, Personal Expenses
A former Cleveland Browns wide receiver allegedly misused funds directed to his Ohio-based anti-violence charities.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Ohio filed charges against Reggie Rucker, 68, of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, last week for wire fraud and making false statements to law enforcement, according to the complaint. He allegedly used charitable donations for his gambling debts and personal expenses—such as mortgage payments, food, travel, dry cleaning and entertainment—and lied to the FBI during questioning.
Rucker—who played in the NFL from 1970 to 1981, including his last seven seasons with the Browns—served as executive director of Amer-I-Can Cleveland, a chapter of the life skills training program that an NFL Hall of Fame and former Browns player founded in 1988. Rucker also was the president of Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance (CPA), a collaboration of community organizations. However, CPA did not have tax-exempt status, or its own bank account. Instead, it shared an account with Amer-I-Can, to which Rucker had sole access.
“Reggie Rucker misused his celebrity and position in the community to dupe some of our most important local foundations and generous citizens,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon. “He stole from the very violence interrupters he so publicly claimed to support. In one breath, he begged generous donors to save Amer-I-Can and the Peacemakers Alliance, and, in the next, he stole that money to support his lifestyle and his gambling junkets in Cleveland, [Tampa,] Fla., and Las Vegas, using the charity's account as his own ATM.”
|Year|| Alleged Amount for Personal Use
||Salary Indicated on IRS Form 990|
|2015 (to Feb. 11)||$32,887.95||n/a|
In all, Rucker allegedly stole about $486,000 from the Amer-I-Can account between 2011 and Feb. 11, 2015—the day authorities interviewed him—according to court documents. The income he reported on IRS 990 forms only totaled $94,500 in that same timeframe, and he didn't file a 990 in 2014.
Rucker allegedly wrote checks to himself and withdrew money from the Amer-I-Can bank account for unrelated expenses, including about $48,000 since 2011 from casino ATMs in Cleveland, Tampa, Fla., and Las Vegas. More than $35,000 of that amount was in 2014 alone. Authorities believe he made more withdrawals at other ATMs, and incurred overdraft and ATM fees on the nonprofit's account. He also allegedly paid off Las Vegas casino debt, totaling $65,000 between 2012 and 2014.
"Credibility is everything in this type of work and I've been doing it all my life, so it was very, very disappointing to realize that Reggie did have this problem," Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame football player who founded the national Amer-I-Can nonprofit, said to Fox 8 Cleveland, adding he cut ties with Rucker in March.
Since 2011, an area foundation—identified in the complaint as "Foundation 1," which Cleveland.com determined "is likely the Cleveland Foundation"—supported Rucker's groups with $2.5 million. The relationship began when Rucker is believed to have begged for funding to pay CPA's outreach workers. On Aug. 19, 2010, he allegedly told the foundation, according to court documents, that the workers have complained about "the lack of pay for the work they do. They believe they are being disrespected and taken advantage of. … I can't hold them together much longer. We have come too far, put too much into tho. None of us has money! … We have very little time. … I am afraid the alliance will dissolve. Short term, I need $50,000 to stabilize our organization."
In January 2013, Rucker learned that "Foundation 1" would award CPA $150,000, so he allegedly forwarded the email notice of the award to a Vegas casino to which he was indebted. "This is my nonprofit and they were a little behind getting me my money," he wrote, according to court documents. "I will not actually have this in my hands for 10 days, maybe 14. … I like to keep communication open so that I don’t get into any trouble. Can they work with me on this?" On March 12, 2013, a week after receiving the first portion of the foundation's funds—about $60,000, Rucker allegedly wrote a check to the casino for $20,000, which he partly funded with the grant money.
In January 2014, he allegedly had overdrawn his account by about $4,600 and Amer-I-Can's account by about $955 before receiving a $47,500 donation. Within about a week, he is believed to have written himself two checks totaling $40,000 and paid off $25,000 in debt at a Vegas casino. By November 2014, he supposedly had $20,000 in gambling debt again, so authorities say he deposited $21,200 in checks from Amer-I-Can, $25,500 in cash and a $17,500 loan into his account. However, he allegedly withdrew more than $8,500 from his account before his casino debt payment cleared, leaving his account at negative $875 with $5,000 in outstanding debt remaining. He didn't make good on that debt until January 2015 with more help from Amer-I-Can's funds, according to authorities.
"Rucker knew the limitations imposed by donors on his use of their charitable funds," the government said in court records. "Rucker required adherence to the terms of grant agreements by other members of CPA, all while Rucker engaged in conduct that violated the terms of Amer-I-Can's grand agreements. During the scheme to defraud, Rucker threatened to file criminal charges against another CPA member accused of misappropriating and commingling charitable funds."
Aside from threatening a peer he believed was stealing from the groups—it turned out to be a bank error—Rucker is believed to have been deceitful by telling current and prospective donors that he did not have a salary with Amer-I-Can, which he did, and the nonprofit had an independent board of directors that provided oversight even though it did not.
"Know that I am attacking this like I would if I were getting ready to catch the game-winning touchdown," he said to Foundation 1 on Nov. 5, 2012 regarding his efforts to strengthen the nonprofit's 2013 funding requests, according to the complaint.
FBI interviewed Rucker a year ago, and, at that time, he denied using the Amer-I-Can account to pay his home mortgage and said there was no activity in the Amer-I-Can bank account this year. Federal authorities have evidence that both of those statements are false.
"He says he's very sorry, he knows he was wrong, not blaming anybody else. … He's accepting responsibility for himself, and [maintains] the vast majority of the money did go to its intended purpose," Rucker's defense attorney Michael Hennenberg, said to Fox 8, adding that Rucker plans to plead guilty.
Rucker could face up to 20 years in prison, according to Fox 8.
A day after Rucker's indictment, a Cleveland city councilman still asked the mayor to include $200,000 in funding for the program in the city's budget.
"We can't let one man, because of what he did, stop us from doing the good things that these individuals continue to do on our streets," Councilman Zach Reed told Fox 8.