Those who followed Bob McConnell during a stellar, nearly decade-long coaching career in Mercer County could not miss his fiery personality.
McConnell, who led George Junior Republic to state basketball championships in 1996 and 1998, will need that fire as he tries to pay back thousands of people and regain a reputation he believes was shattered by the cancellation of a fundraiser for his cancer foundation.
McConnell, 543 Slippery Rock Road, Slippery Rock Township, Butler County, is president of Hope Cancer Treatment Foundation, which was to be the beneficiary of the Black and Gold Bash scheduled for Sunday at Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in Chester, WV, but canceled a day earlier.
That left 5,556 ticket buyers from about 25 states holding $416,700 worth of $75 tickets with no place to go. Dozens of Mercer County residents were believed to be among those buyers, some of whom were on their way to the event when they learned it was canceled.
Organizers touted giveaways of about $300,000 in prizes in order to entice people to attend. Among them were cash prizes of $75,000 and $25,000; two Chevrolet Tahoes and a Cadillac Escalade; trips to the 2007 NFL Draft in New York City, the 2007 Pro Bowl in Hawaii and Steelers’ games in Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati; and dozens of items autographed by former and current Steelers.
“My No. 1 concern is to get every single ticket buyer their money in full,” McConnell said Tuesday. “That’s all I care about. The damage has been done to me, my family and the foundation.”
The money collected from ticket sales was used to buy prizes, as well as cover marketing and advertising expenses, McConnell said. He plans to liquidate as many prizes as possible to help pay ticket buyers back. A partial re-payment should be made by next month, but McConnell did not know when people would get all their money.
McConnell is also considering legal action against Mountaineer, which he said “took it upon themselves” to cancel the event that no West Virginia agency or government entity forced them to cancel.
“We had a signed contract and they breached it,” he said.
Tamara Cronin said Tuesday Mountaineer canceled the event after getting a call from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office late Friday afternoon telling them McConnell’s foundation was not certified as a charity in the state.
“We reacted to their failure to be licensed in West Virginia,” said Mrs. Cronin, a public relations director for the resort.
McConnell, who said he did not learn of the cancellation until noon Saturday, called Mountaineer to argue, but said the “first thing out of their mouth” was they feared they would not be approved for a slots license in Pennsylvania since an official with the attorney general’s office had gone on record Friday saying they weren’t in favor of the event.
Mountaineer is an applicant for one of Pennsylvania’s gambling licenses.
“They said, ‘Do you think we’re going to take a chance of not getting our gaming license for running this event?’ ” McConnell said.
Mrs. Cronin said that was not the case, that they had to cancel the event once they were contacted by the Secretary of State’s office.
“This thing is unbelievably full of politics and all these people suffered because of it,” McConnell said. “It was all ruined by politics.”
McConnell claims his foundation has been ruined by the cancellation because his reputation has been destroyed.
“All I tried to do was start a charity and raise money for a good cause,” McConnell said. “And all I’ve done is had obstacles all the way along.”
One of the obstacles in Pennsylvania was that his foundation was not registered with the state.
“We didn’t know we had to register,” McConnell said.
Deputy Attorney General Regis Schnippert said McConnell was notified in July to stop all solicitation in the state and to provide financial information and corporate records for the foundation and the event.
“Our only concern was he was soliciting illegally in Pennsylvania,” Schnippert said Tuesday. “… We never approved of him conducting a solicitation for a raffle without a small games of chance license, which he never got and couldn’t get based on the size of the raffle.”
Small games of chance laws in Pennsylvania limit prizes to $5,000 a month or up to $100,000 a year with a special permit, he said.
McConnell’s foundation was incorporated as a private, non-profit in July and he said it was properly registered as a charity on Oct. 2.
McConnell must file an accounting of all money he received and tickets sold next week in Butler County Courthouse, said Schnippert, who is also encouraging people to contact his office at 412-565-7680 if they bought a ticket or believe they were owed money.
Mike Pawk, an attorney who represents the foundation, is asking ticket buyers to e-mail their names, addresses and phone numbers to firstname.lastname@example.org in order to speed up the reimbursement process.