Jury: Campbell coach Phil Atsas not guilty
YOUNGSTOWN — A jury found Campbell physical education teacher Phil Atsas not guilty of theft by deception late Thursday after a full day of testimony.
Atsas, 56, who also has coached the high school soccer team at various times, was charged with taking money from families to allow their children to play soccer.
But John Zamoida, special prosecutor, dismissed four of the six misdemeanor counts before the jury began to deliberate. Two of the dismissals were because witnesses associated with those counts did not come to court to testify. One reported being sick.
The jury deliberated 22 minutes before rendering not-guilty verdicts on the two remaining counts. Visiting Judge Robert Lavery of Alliance presided.
Prosecutors originally had charged Atsas with six felony counts of theft in office, but those were dismissed earlier because Zamoida, who is prosecutor in Struthers, did not have time to prepare for the preliminary hearing in the case.
After the verdict, Zamoida said: “I respect the process and I respect the jury’s decision.”
Atsas afterward called himself a “small pawn in the situation I’m in,” apparently referring to Campbell City Schools placing him on paid administrative leave in September for issues separate from the criminal charges. He remains on administrative leave, which requires him to work from home.
FIRST IN 50
The jury trial — the first one the court has had in about 50 years — included brief remarks and questioning of Campbell Superintendent Matthew Bowen from Zomoida and much more aggressive remarks and questioning from attorney Scott Essad, who represents Atsas.
Essad admitted during his opening statements and while questioning Bowen that he is personally invested in the case, saying a conviction in the case could be a “figurative death penalty” for Atsas, suggesting that his client might lose his job.
In fact, Essad’s habit of rebutting remarks by the superintendent instead of only asking questions earned him several warnings from the judge.
“The next time it will cost you in your wallet,” Judge Lavery told Essad of a possible contempt of court sanction. “This is not your editorial comment.”
Zamoida told jurors one of the parents involved would testify that he or she wrote a check to Atsas for soccer training at the Tri-County Sports Complex on Logangate Road in Liberty, but would not have if the parent realized that such activities are supposed to be free.
Bowen started the investigation by contacting the Campbell Police Department on Nov. 19, 2019, to report concerns that Atsas may have “possibly stolen money from the soccer program and kept the money for his personal gain,” according to a Campbell police report.
A Campbell police officer contacted families and they confirmed they gave Atsas money for soccer training. “Those moneys were never turned over and deposited into the school athletic fund,” police said.
But Essad said in opening statements he doesn’t understand why the superintendent and police department have an issue with a person organizing children from third to seventh grade to play indoor soccer during the winter. Atsas’ coaching and organizing of those children is not a school-related activity, and Atsas did not profit from it, Essad said.
After the verdict, Essad said the school district went through “cartwheels and twists and turns … as a way to hurt Phil,” but the jury “saw right through it.”
Bowen testified that he agrees that the teams Atsas organized would not be school teams except that Atsas is a school employee.
It is a violation of the Ohio Board of Education’s Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio Educators for a school employee to run any type of program in which the employee collects money from families without turning it in to the school district, Bowen testified.
Campbell schools does not charge families for sports because many of the families cannot afford it, the superintendent said.
Atsas has been a teacher with the district since 1995. A Sept. 10 memo says Atsas was placed on administrative leave pending a school investigation of allegations, including “blatant disregard for recent and past corrective disciplinary reprimands and school board policy,” and other misconduct.
That investigation looked into a number of issues, but the Sept. 10 memo and one from Oct. 24 did not mention the issues associated with taking money from parents for soccer.