WASILLA — The Palmer Grand Jury indicted a longtime Mat-Su teacher and hockey coach last week on allegations he defrauded the Alaska Avalanche Junior A program’s booster club of about $48,000.
James “Jamie” Donald Smith Jr. was served with the indictment on March 1 and summonsed into Palmer Superior Court for a March 18 arraignment on five felony counts alleging he forged documents and defrauded the Alaska Avalanche fundraising arm, the Sprit Booster Club, from June 2008 through December 2009.
In all, Smith faces two charges of second-degree forgery of legal documents, first-degree theft greater than $25,000, scheme to defraud more than $10,000 and fraudulent use of an access device greater than $25,000, according to charging documents filed in state criminal superior court.
A teacher at Mat-Su Career and Technical High School and current head coach of the Colony High School hockey program, Smith has a long and involved history in the Valley and sport.
As of Monday afternoon, Career Tech principal Mark Okeson said he’s aware of the indictment and said Smith was still teaching there. He described Smith as “a great teacher,” and said he had received no further direction from the district regarding the matter.
At the Mat-Su Borough School District, officials are aware of the indictment, first handed down by the grand jury Feb. 27, and are looking into the matter, said district spokeswoman Catherine Esary. Until that’s complete, Smith’s status as a teacher and coach will remain unchanged, she said.
“The district was concerned to learn that one of our staff members was indicted on five felony counts related to the administration and handling of funds for the (booster club),” MSBSD Director of Human Resources Katherine Gardner says in a prepared statement issued Monday afternoon.
While the indictment focuses on activity with the Alaska Avalanche Spirit Booster Club and not the school district, MSBSD officials will check its records as well, the statement says.
“The district will be reviewing our own financial records to ensure that school funds have been managed appropriately. We are concerned about the seriousness of what has been alleged and will continue to monitor closely the investigation and outcome, but recognize that at present there are only charges and no convictions.”
A message left for Smith for reaction to the indictment was not returned by press time Monday evening.
A 1984 Wasilla High School graduate, Smith has been involved with the Junior Avalanche youth hockey association — not affiliated with the Alaska Avalanche — since 1993 and is currently that organization’s coaching director, a non-voting board position. Prior to accepting the Colony coaching job in September 2010, Smith coached and served in multiple front office positions with the Alaska Avalanche from 2005 through 2009, including serving as president of the Sprit Booster Club. Prior to that, he enjoyed a 16-year stint as Houston High School hockey coach, where he guided the Hawks program to six Greatland Conference titles and five Class 3A state hockey championships.
As to his association with Junior Avalanche youth hockey, board president Matt Ketchum said Smith is still the group’s coaching director and that there has been no hint of any financial malfeasance with his organization.
“I would like to make that distinction that (the indictment) was about the Alaska Avalanche, not us,” he said. “I know for a fact that our organization is in great financial shape and has nothing to do with the allegations of Mr. Smith.”
That Smith now faces felony charges is disappointing, Ketchum said, and not in keeping with his dealings with Smith.
“I’ve been aware of allegations for four years,” he said. “But as a matter of fact, all the dealings I’ve had with Mr. Smith have been extremely accurate, transparent, professional and legal.”
Former Alaska Avalanche owner Mark Lee said he had been out of town and was unaware the indictment had been handed down.
“This has been in the works for a couple of years,” Lee said Monday. “I’ve been on vacation for two weeks and just got back this morning.”
Lee declined to comment further on details of the investigation or Smith’s past with the Alaska Avalanche. The Alaska Avalanche franchise was sold following the 2011-2012 season and moved to Johnstown, Penn., where it now operates as the Johnstown Tomahawks.
The charges against Smith come after a lengthy investigation by the state Department of Revenue Criminal Investigations Unit, said Rob Henderson, an assistant attorney general with the state Office of Special Prosecutions. That the charges date back to June 2008 could also be a reflection of a five-year statute of limitations on prosecuting such crimes, he said, while adding that wouldn’t be the only factor in bringing a charge against a suspect.
That the Department of Revenue would be involved in the investigation could stem from the Sprit Booster Club holding a charitable gaming license from the state, said Scott Stair, investigations manager for the Criminal Investigation Unit.
Although Stair said he couldn’t comment specifically on Smith’s case, in general, “there are certain reporting requirements (with a charitable gaming license), and that’s a very common way we’ll get involved, but we also get a lot of tips.”
As for the statute of limitations, Stair said he’s not sure if more charges could have been possible if not for the five-year limit.
“Would it have been more? I don’t know,” he said. “But in these types of investigations, sometimes they can fall into the gray area.”
Contact reporter Greg Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2269.