Doc Hurley Foundation in Disarray As Scholarships Dry Up, Board Disbands

The Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation that boosted the college dreams of hundreds of Hartford-area students has nearly collapsed, losing its tax-exempt status and its board of trustees, and awarding no more than two new scholarships in the past five years, a Courant investigation has found.

Twelve years after boosters raised at least $1.7 million to build an endowment for the foundation, less than a third of that money remains, with no public accounting of spending since 2007.

The organization, created four decades ago by Hartford legend Walter "Doc" Hurley, also hasn't filed a federal tax form or state corporation papers in more than five years, and it has been nearly as long since scholarship application forms were distributed to the dozens of eligible high schools in the state.

More than 25 area high schools contacted by The Courant reported no recent Doc Hurley scholarships. Guidance officials at several schools with extensive record-keeping said the last time their school received an application form from the foundation was the 2008-09 academic year.

But the foundation has continued to host its annual Doc Hurley Scholarship Basketball Classic, a high school tournament held in December that's still billed as a charitable fundraiser for scholarships.

The foundation had $880,000 in assets at the end of 2007, records show. Muriel Hurley-Carter — Doc Hurley's daughter and the foundation's executive director and sole employee — initially declined to say how much money was left, but later said the foundation still has "probably about $550,000 in the bank." She agreed to produce bank records but canceled one meeting with The Courant and failed to show for a subsequent meeting she scheduled.

Hurley-Carter, who began receiving a $55,000-a-year salary around 2002, said that beginning five years ago, her 91-year-old father's health issues made it impossible for her to sustain the foundation.

"When my father got sick, it was just really hard, just kind of keeping up with everything," she said in an interview at her father's Hartford home, where she now lives.

"A decade ago, we were totally different. We had structure. We had resources. And I was available to make everything go. And we're all human beings here," she said. "And unless you've walked in my shoes, you will never understand where we are."

Hurley-Carter acknowledged that it has been years since she solicited scholarship applications, saying that without help, the process of distributing and judging applications had become too time-consuming.

"I have not put any applications into the guidance offices in a few years because it is just a tedious process and I have not had the manpower to judge those applications," Hurley-Carter said. "The scholarship committee is just not functional right now."

She said she was in the process of revamping the foundation and was working with a board member, John Lobon, in an effort to resurrect the scholarship program and build a new board of trustees.

But Lobon told The Courant he severed ties with the organization months ago after concluding that it had dissolved. "I'm in the dark as well as most other people are," he said. "To the extent of what transpired, what was transpiring, I don't have those details. I don't know."

Doc Hurley, a towering figure in Hartford athletics and education, also was in the dark about the status of the foundation, saying last week that he was under the impression the scholarship program was expanding.

"To hear what you're telling me now, it's a sad day," Hurley said at a North End community center, where he spends most days surrounded by friends and well-wishers. "It's a sad day because, if this happened, it means that a lot of people have been let down."

Expenses Skyrocket

Walter "Doc" Hurley was a standout athlete at Weaver High School more than 70 years ago, lettering in basketball, football, baseball and track before his graduation in 1941. Years later, he returned as an administrator for the school, and in the early 1970s he began raising money for the Doc Hurley Scholarship fund to give needy students some modest help paying for college.

From the mid-'70s to the late '90s, Hurley's shoestring enterprise — later renamed the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation — gave out scholarships averaging about $1,000 to nearly 400 graduating seniors who exhibited good grades and community service.

But corporate leaders in Hartford had bigger ideas. And in 2000, The Phoenix Foundation and now-retired Phoenix CEO Robert Fiondella embarked on a multi-million-dollar capital campaign to give bigger scholarships to more students, and to assure that Hurley's legacy — and the non-profit that bears his name — would continue forever, sustained by the interest earned on the endowment.

The foundation's $1,000 "book scholarships" doubled to $2,000. And in 2001, the organization began selecting two "Doc Hurley Legacy Scholars" who each received $10,000 over four years.

"The wonderful things that are happening are going to be around longer than any of us," Hurley said in 2001. "It's a very nice feeling."

At least $1.7 million was collected for the drive, and that's about how much money the foundation had in assets at the end of 2001. But in the years that followed, spending ballooned — although not spending for scholarships — far outstripping donations and other income and quickly eating away at the foundation's endowment, tax records show.

Those tax forms describe how the money was spent only in general terms. Spending described in various years as "Program and Fundraising Events," "Program Activities" and "Program Expenses" rose from no more than $31,000 in 2002 to nearly $250,000 in 2007.

One line item, labeled "Awards Dinner," lists $550 in spending in 2005, $5,777 in 2006, and $65,980 in 2007. That last figure was for an 85th birthday celebration for Doc Hurley at the Connecticut Convention Center, a gala that Hurley-Carter said was arranged by someone else and cost more than she expected. Former UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun was among the speakers who honored Hurley at the event.

"All I saw were invoices," Hurley-Carter said. "It was just too expensive."

The foundation paid about $47,000 in scholarships in 2002. The amount fluctuated after that year, but between 2002 and 2007, the average remained close to that same $47,000. Meanwhile, overall spending grew from less than $190,000 in 2002 to more than $400,000 in 2007. And as spending grew, the foundation's endowment shrunk.

The $1.7 million nest egg in 2001 fell to $1.5 million in 2003, to $1.2 million in 2005, and to less than $900,000 in 2007 — nearly half the money gone in six years.

Hurley-Carter initially explained the drop by saying investment losses and fees hit the foundation hard.

"When the market hit its point, we lost a lot," Hurley-Carter said. "The $1.7 million that was in the bank, we lost a lot in the fees that we had to pay, and we lost a lot on those investments."

But the drop in assets from $1.7 million to less than $900,000 occurred before the 2008 decline in the stock market. Told that investment fluctuations would not explain the drop, Hurley-Carter acknowledged: "We had to use a lot of the money to pay a lot of expenses also."

Volunteers who were on the board in past years said they were unaware of how quickly the foundation's assets were being depleted. Hartford attorney Peter Odlum, who had left the board by 2006, said board members put their energy into selecting students for scholarships and arranging the Doc Hurley Scholarship Basketball Classic. He and other board members said finances were rarely discussed.

"I have no idea what happened to that money," Odlum said. "I had no idea there was that kind of money."

John C. Norman, a former chairman of the foundation's board, agreed that trustees did not keep a close eye on the money.

"I think that we just sort of were honed in on getting good students to go to great schools who could not afford those schools," Norman said. "I think that what we were missing was a person, during my tenure as I think back, who would help the board to understand the fiscal side of this whole thing, which I don't think we understood."

Simone Sweeney is among the last known city students who received a scholarship from the foundation. The Weaver High graduate was one of two Doc Hurley Legacy Scholars named in 2006, making her eligible for $2,500 in aid annually.

Sweeney confirmed that she received scholarship money all four years of her undergraduate program at Howard University, where she graduated with a bachelor of science in 2010. At Hurley-Carter's request, Sweeney said, she spoke at a couple of events years ago about being a Doc Hurley scholar. Her contact with Hurley-Carter ended around late 2009.

Sweeney said that a scholarship from The Hartford paid for much of college, and that the Doc Hurley funds paid for books and some of her housing. "It was definitely very helpful," said Sweeney, who is now in medical school.

Assets, Scholarships Plummet

After 2007, the mandatory tax filings came to a halt, leading the IRS to revoke the foundation's non-profit status. The robust scholarship program dwindled soon after, while the organization's assets continued to fall.

Between 2008 and 2010, Hurley-Carter said, the organization wrote checks to students who were already selected for the multi-year Doc Hurley Legacy scholarships, which would have amounted to no more than $30,000 in aid.

It is unclear if any new scholarships were awarded in 2008; Hurley-Carter said none were awarded in 2009, 2010 or 2011. She said she awarded two new $2,500 scholarships last year after receiving requests for aid directly from the students, whom she would not identify. Hurley-Carter agreed to provide copies of letters or checks verifying the scholarships, but ultimately did not produce the records.

Over the past six years, while awarding few scholarships, the foundation's assets dropped by at least $330,000.

Hurley-Carter did not provide details on the foundation's expenses. But she said she reduced her salary to about $10,000 a year, and noted that the annual basketball classic hosted at Weaver's Doc Hurley Field House had lost a number of sponsors and costs more than the modest ticket sales and other revenue it brings in.

"The tournament does not create any revenue. The tournament is just expenses," she said. "It's just a showcase and that's it."

As the bank balances dropped, the foundation appears to have had no formal treasurer minding the books. Patrice Wood is still listed as treasurer on the foundation's website, and was identified as holding that title on tax forms through 2007, even though she said she left that position by 2003.

Wood said she agreed to serve as treasurer early in the last decade, but quickly learned it was more work than she could handle with two small children and a husband in the military about to be deployed overseas.

"Once I realized, I was like, 'Wait, you need a bookkeeper. You need somebody doing transactions. I can't be involved like this,'" Wood said. "I said, 'What I can do is I can continue to help you out on the scholarship committee, but that's the most I can do. I can't give this kind of time.'"

Wood said she served as treasurer for roughly a year, then helped select scholarships for another couple of years but had no further involvement in the foundation's finances.

And yet, Wood said, she received a call several years ago from a vendor trying to collect on a past-due bill for the foundation. She said she contacted Hurley-Carter and asked that her name be removed from the website, which didn't happen.

"Now I'm a little nervous because I don't know if I was ever replaced," Wood said.

She wasn't. Hurley-Carter last week identified Wood as the foundation's treasurer, but later acknowledged the last contact she had with Wood was the phone call in which Wood asked to have her name taken off the website.

The foundation did use an accounting firm to prepare its tax forms, but accountant Ed Jason said he wasn't involved in day-to-day finances. He said he hadn't heard from the foundation since the last filing in 2007.

"They kind of stopped interacting with us and I just don't know whatever happened to them, frankly," said Jason, a CPA with Whittlesey & Hadley in Hartford. "As far as what's happened, or where they are now, I guess I kind of thought they had dried up, because I never recall hearing much more about them."

Hurley-Carter said she was unaware that the foundation's tax-exempt status was revoked, and unaware that tax forms were not filed in 2008 and later, although she had signed the forms that were submitted each year from 2001 to 2007. She said in 2008, she had turned that task over to an accountant, but would not identify that individual.

Jay Margnelli, an executive with Coca Cola, said he was active on the board of trustees during the aggressive fundraising period around 2000 and 2001. But as early as 2003, he said he sensed trouble with the board and the foundation.

"We weren't as tight as a group. We didn't meet as often. The communication kind of fell apart. And the events — we weren't doing as many of the fundraising events at that point in time," he said. "I disengaged shortly thereafter."

Nevertheless, Margnelli was listed as a trustee on tax forms through 2007 and is still listed as a board member on the foundation's website. In fact, of the 11 outside board members identified on the website, a majority are either dead, have moved out of state or said they are no longer affiliated with the group.

As board members left, they weren't replaced, leaving fewer volunteers to help the foundation operate.

"The board fizzled," Hurley-Carter said. "I mean, it's just like I've been abandoned."

'Don't I Have A Right To Question?'

At the Parker Memorial Community Center last week, Doc Hurley sat in the power wheelchair he now needs to get around. He joked about health care workers calling him a "frequent flier" these days.

"I would say from my waist up, I'm in pretty good shape," he said. "But from my knees down, you know, I've had it."

Hurley, wearing a Weaver High School leather jacket and a green Doc Hurley Scholarship Basketball Classic cap, recalled a time when his daughter had the foundation running smoothly.

"Boy, Muriel would get the applications and would see that all of the eligible schools would get the applications and make certain that the students at the schools were aware that the scholarships were available, and all of that," he said. "So I said, 'Well, it's in good hands.'"

But lately, Hurley said he has seen a change. And now, he thinks he knows why.

"More and more, I've noticed that she hasn't been the relaxed type. Now, things seem to upset her so easily," he said. "I think it's because she's aware of the situation that she's in and she doesn't want to let me know that it's like this."

Hurley said he has tried asking her about finances but gets rebuffed.

"And I said, 'Well, gee, what am I, a lame-duck president? I don't have a right to question?'"

Fiondella, the former Phoenix executive who was a driving force behind the fundraising campaign a dozen years ago, said he was saddened that the foundation's troubles might damage Hurley's reputation.

"If what you describe is accurate, I feel very badly for him — and for a lot of the kids that he would have helped," Fiondella said. "I just hope that the ship gets righted in a way so that it doesn't taint the tremendous legacy he deserves to have."